By Charlotte Morelli
Lead Instructor Lisa Sprowls explains that the costs of the Covid-19 Pandemic at Operation Restoration are a social matter rather than a financial one. “We rely on each other.” OR was founded in 2016 with a mission to aid women and girls impacted by incarceration.
While the majority of society has hit the pause button since last March in the wake of Covid-19 restrictions, Operation Restoration (OR) is responding to the pandemic as a call to action that will not be ignored.
“Pandemic aside, the work is draining, and so many people are in dire need of help. We don’t want to turn anyone away that comes to us in need. Not being able to be in the office together with co-workers takes a social toll,” says Sprowls. A Zoom meeting does not replace being with other humans in a room. These days, accomplishing a goal means slapping your laptop shut rather than celebrating with the team.
“At heart, our focus is still those impacted by incarceration. We’ve widened our scope with the pandemic, received extra funding, and we’re going to help whoever we can,” says Sprowls. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing financial hardship for millions in America, and OR is rising to meet the challenge.
OR stands next to the Melpomene projects, and as soon as word got around that they were distributing Walmart gift cards, there were hundreds of people showing up, lining up around the block. NOPD showed up to regulate the crowd.
OR was able to aid 500 women in need with $80 Walmart gift cards thanks to the help of emergency funding. “OR’s mission is still to bring social and economic equity to women and girls impacted by incarceration, but we won’t not help other people along the way,” says Sprowls.
Financially, OR has strengthened its funding throughout the course of the pandemic. While the service and entertainment industries suffer irrevocable financial losses at the hands of gathering restrictions, at OR the pandemic has seemed to spur an increase in humanity. In addition to aiding women directly impacted by incarceration, OR also operates the New Orleans Safety and Freedom Bail fund. With the help of external funders, the bail fund has grown from $800,000 to 1 Million Dollars, and has successfully released 200 people from jail since the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic.
The pandemic has brought a lot of new clients to OR that they typically wouldn’t get before.
Regardless of whether they are impacted by incarceration, people are out of work– they need clothes, and they need money for utilities. OR’s mission has fueled its response to the present
crisis. The organization strives to help women through adversity, and they’re taking on as many clients as they can.
One service OR provides is helping women study for their General Educational Development tests. These tests help women who never finished high school obtain accredited degrees.
Helping women study for their GEDs was contingent on face-to-face interaction, and women just out of prison have missed out on the latest technology trends. In the past year, women have left prison to meet a global pandemic that restricts human interaction to virtually nothing; the virtual aspect is either inaccessible or difficult to navigate. Sprowls has taken on the challenge of teaching them virtually, which comes with additional hurdles. Many don’t know how to operate the technology, or worse yet, they don’t even have access to a device. These women don’t have MacBooks to Zoom in on from home.
In response to this virtual education challenge, Sprowls developed a classroom site using a free learning management system. The classroom site functions as an app, so women with cellphones can still participate in learning.
The pandemic has incited technological development, augmented funding, and a broader scope of clients, but recognizing America’s blatant violations to incarcerated people’s humanity should not require the life-stopping force of a pandemic. The New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund has grown by six figures, but the fact remains that if someone is incarcerated pre-hearing, they still have to stay in jail if they can’t post bail.
There are no masks in the prisons, and there’s not enough soap, Sprowls says. At one point Elayn Hunt Correctional Center had over a 98% positivity rate of Covid-19 among incarcerated women– 192 positive cases of the 195 people in the unit. The likelihood of contracting Covid-19 in a prison is four times higher than outside one, and at least 31 people in Louisiana prisons have died from the virus. In Louisiana, there’s no prioritization to vaccinate people in prisons, despite their status as a vulnerable population.
The mental toll of the pandemic on incarcerated people is under-discussed and unimaginable. The prisons shut down visits at the start of Covid-19, so most incarcerated people haven’t had a visit in the past year. There’s no access to technology– the prisons won’t pay for them to make phone calls, and they won’t give them laptops. Human interactions are limited to other incarcerated people, and of course, their daily interactions with the guards. What are the longstanding psychological effects of perpetual interactions with surrounding authority figures?
“Do they have enough money in their account to make a phone call? Because if not, there’s no interaction with their lawyer, their family, no one,” Sprowls says. At Jetson Correctional Center, women are prohibited from having computers for educational purposes. Apart from books, there
is no access to information.
To what degree will we be passive in watching the pandemic exacerbate pre-existing inequalities? When it comes to humanity, where will our society say we drew the line?
The pandemic has affected us all in varying degrees, as well as strengthened the contrast between America’s privileges and inequities. For some, the pandemic is fear, loneliness, and isolation. For others, it is these emotions in conjunction with living in an inhumane environment. People are struggling in the wake of Covid-19, but people have been struggling long before the pandemic. Some have lost their social lives– others their livelihoods, homes, and most basic physiological needs. No loss is invalid, but the most dire are pernicious.
OR is helping women transition from an inhumane system into an unrecognizable society. The pandemic has shifted every aspect of daily life, worsened pre-existing hardship, and robbed us of our common denominator– human connection. Present circumstances have only made such a transition more difficult, but there are ways for us to help make it easier. At the closing of our conversation, I asked Lisa how we can help those impacted by incarceration during this global health crisis.
All help is appreciated.
Donations: Operation Restoration accepts donations of masks and soap. Additionally, OR operates a donation-based closet at their Central City Office for any women in need. They take new and gently used women’s clothing and hygiene products.
Monetary Donations: Monetary donations can be made to the New Orleans Safety and Freedom fund via https://donorbox.org/safety-freedom-fund-eoy and to Operation Restoration via https://donorbox.org/operationrestoration.
The New Orleans Safety and Freedom fund has a postcard program that you can sign up for online. Any form of social interaction for incarcerated people with someone other than a guard is of value. For more information on how to contribute, visit https://www.or-nola.org/.