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Social Justice

Prison Visitation in the Era of COVID-19

New York correctional facilities have been closed to visitors since March, depriving the incarcerated of vital contact with their loved ones. But a DOCCS reopening plan has done little to assuage concerns, some of which predate the pandemic.

New York prisons have been closed to visitors since March because of the pandemic.
Shutterstock/Illustration by Kerry Tinger
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Roberta last saw her fiancé, Reggie, on March 13 during her regular weekly visit to Green Haven Correctional Facility in Beekman, where Reggie has been incarcerated for nearly 14 years. (The names of sources in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.) At that visit, Reggie told Roberta that he suspected the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) was planning to suspend visits in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The following day, DOCCS did just that. “I haven’t seen him since,” Roberta says, “and we were supposed to get married on the 25th.”

Throughout July, DOCCS was reportedly making plans to reopen visitation to state-run prisons like Green Haven on August 5. But while a visitation Reopening Plan Fact Sheet was distributed to the incarcerated population and posted on the DOCCS website in early July, the four-page memo has done little to assuage the mounting concerns of those who have incarcerated loved ones.

Prior to the pandemic, visitation to correctional facilities was already a highly regulated affair. Visits to state-run facilities are commonly allowed only on certain days, during certain hours. People who have incarcerated loved ones often express frustration at the undue hardships surrounding visitation. Entire economies have developed around traveling to and from facilities and negotiating the complex landscape of prison bureaucracy.

Roberta describes a typical visit to Green Haven. First, at the end of a work week, there is the hour-long train ride from where she lives to Beacon, the nearest station to the facility. Although visitation at Green Haven begins at 7:30am, the earliest train arrives at the Beacon train station at 8:22am. “A lot of the people who are incarcerated [at Green Haven] are from the city,” Roberta says. Almost no one incarcerated there is from lower Dutchess County, where the prison is located.

Next, a 20-minute ride from the station to the prison via taxi or, in many cases, the local volunteer Beacon Prison Rides Project. And then potentially two hours of “processing,” during which prison staff does paperwork, searches visitors’ bags, and inspects visitors for dress code violations.

“They treat us like we’re inmates,” Roberta says.

If processing “up front” takes long enough, one might “miss the count,” when all activity at the jail is suspended while the incarcerated population is counted. “And then you have to wait until 12 o’clock,” Roberta says, when the count is finished.

Visiting hours at Green Haven end at 2:30pm.

While she explains all of this, Roberta is also on the phone with the DMV, attempting to make an appointment. The next available date they have for her is six weeks out. She sighs. “The world needs to get back in order,” she says, “because I can’t tolerate this.”

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Among the new restrictions detailed in the DOCCS Reopening Plan Fact Sheet are mandatory masks, a ban on physical contact, a 50 percent reduction in visitation room capacity, and a time limit of two hours. Prior to the pandemic, restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles often meant that only a fraction of visitation hours could actually be used for face-to-face visits; because of that and the new, even-more restricted environment brought on by the pandemic, incarcerated people and their loved ones are concerned that visitations could be red-taped right back out of existence.

Despite that, Roberta will not hesitate to do what it takes to see Reggie, when the time comes. “I’m coming to see him, because I haven’t seen him in so long, and sometimes people just need somebody to see, whether the mask is on your face or not.”

According to Saeed, an incarcerated individual at Green Haven, a DOCCS memo distributed to the incarcerated population at various New York State correctional facilities said that visitation would resume on August 5 “if it is feasible.” There is, however, no date posted on any public-facing website or in any publicly distributed memo. 

According to a DOCCS spokesperson, that’s because they “don’t have a date yet.” When asked for further comment, the DOCCS spokesperson told The River to “go with what is on the DOCCS website.”

The DOCCS website, where the original announcement of visitation suspension is posted, still says that visitation will resume “on April 11th.”

Saeed now says the August 5 date has been canceled.

According to several people who spoke to The River for this story, this sort of obfuscation is typical of DOCCS, which maintains no formal communication with the families and loved ones of incarcerated individuals. In other words, the only formal relationship that exists in this situation is between DOCCS and the incarcerated individual.

“Anyone who comes [to visit] once a month—why aren’t they being contacted with this information?” asks Saeed. “Why aren’t they being surveyed: ‘Would this work for you?’”

Saeed’s partner, Pamela, visited regularly before the pandemic. Reached via email and phone, Saeed expresses frustration with, and mistrust of, DOCCS. “They don’t want us to have visits,” he says plainly. “They don’t want us to have any room for growth. They just want us to be locked up. They consider visitation, commissary, and packages all privileges that we shouldn’t have.”

Pamela reaffirms Saeed’s frustration, saying she would appreciate it if DOCCS had a system for communicating with families of the incarcerated. “Once, I didn’t hear from Saeed for four days,” she says. When she called Green Haven concerned about his wellbeing, she spoke with “a very cold correctional officer” who told her that if something had happened to Saeed, they would notify his next of kin. Pamela and Saeed met after Saeed was incarcerated, and they are not married or legally related.

Visitation is a lifeline for the incarcerated, and its total suspension “hurts deep in the soul,” according to LaMarr, who is also incarcerated at Green Haven. Without visitation, the only forms of communication between the incarcerated and their loved ones are telephone calls and emails. Both cost money and both are monitored by prison staff and, potentially, by Securus Technologies, the private corporation that owns the communications systems used by New York State prisons. All of this makes the Securus email system, JPay, unreliable. According to several incarcerated people interviewed for this story, emails commonly disappear. 

Without the in-person connection of personal visits, LaMarr says, “a sense of dehumanization sets in. Frustration, anger, and depression find a root.”

LaMarr’s wife, Jasmine, who visited LaMarr weekly before the pandemic, echoes this point. But she adds that physical welfare is also part of the equation. Jasmine has inferred from recent phone calls that LaMarr was injured somehow, but she has not been able to get the whole story. (Their last names have been withheld at their request.)

“I don’t know what happened because we didn’t get to speak face to face, we’re being recorded, so he can’t tell me everything that happened,” Jasmine says. Pre-pandemic, if something like this were to happen, Jasmine would spring into action: “Call Beacon Prison Rides Project to get a ride and I’m up there to see what’s going on with my husband,” she says. “But being that we’re in this situation, oh my God…I don’t know what’s going on, can’t really know exactly how he’s doing.”

Jasmine says she expends great effort navigating DOCCS’s bureaucracy in order to advocate for LaMarr, and for herself. “I have to constantly call. I mean constantly call. I call [DOCCS] every Monday just to get updated” about the reopening plan. “And then,” she says, “I call the facility, too.” It is typical for one agency to simply refer her to the other, only for that agency to refer her back to the first one.

Like many others, Jasmine says she draws strength from strategizing with an advocacy group. Harlem-based Alliance of Families for Justice holds weekly town hall-style meetings and advocacy and communication training sessions for family members of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Jasmine says she was looking forward to a demonstration in Albany on Thursday, July 23 that AFJ organized. “If we all come together, we could be powerful.”

***

While precautions were certainly necessary because of the risk of COVID-19, the number of cases in New York State prisons continued to rise after visitation was suspended. “I don’t want to point any fingers,” Jasmine says, “but we know who’s going in and out: staff, civilians, in and out the facility, and that’s how they contracted it. Not through loved ones.”

Be that as it may, some incarcerated people question whether reopening soon is the right move. Saeed calls the potential reopening “a pot of disaster waiting to happen.” While he believes the majority of prisoners are in favor of the opening, he and Pamela have agreed to wait, for now. “I don’t even know if the correction officers or civilian staff [practice] social cautions,” Saeed says. “So I don’t want to subject anyone I know to that risk.”

For some, though, the particular precautions seem arbitrary, and the emotional and material effects feel more like punishments doubled down on, rather than safety measures. Roberta reports that on several occasions, food packages she sent to her husband at Green Haven were spoiled by the time he received them. During a virtual town hall hosted by AFJ on May 21, several people corroborated this experience. While the public has learned that the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 from mailed packages is very low, and that mitigating that low risk is relatively simple, many people suspect that DOCCS has continued to quarantine food packages for long enough that the food is going bad before reaching prisoners. DOCCS did not respond to a request for comment on this issue.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Alliance of Families for Justice has been pushing for DOCCS to allow for food packages to be dropped off by hand, rather than sent through the mail, to avoid just such spoilage. 

While LaMarr looks forward to visitation restarting, he questions the way that DOCCS is approaching it. “The continued suspension of [the] Family Reunion Program does not make any sense,” he says. “That is one of the safest things, as far as visiting goes.”

The Family Reunion Program, or FRP as it is commonly known, provides legal spouses, children, grandchildren, and siblings of the incarcerated the opportunity to spend time together “in a private home-like setting,” according to the DOCCS website. It will remain suspended until further notice. DOCCS gives no further information, adding only that the suspension will be “periodically evaluated.”

LaMarr says he felt that there are much greater risks in daily life in New York City, for example, and that there were many ways DOCCS could be more safely reimplementing visitation, which he stresses is a necessity. “It has been too long. Far too long,” he says. “But I am just someone that has been imprisoned for over 25 years who doesn’t have a real say in the matter.”

Mark Trecka is a Chicago-born writer and artist. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksViceThe New InquirySalon, and elsewhere. He lives in the Hudson Valley. Follow him on Twitter @MTrecka.