[Pnews] Those Visits Were Everything - How Prison Visitation Cuts Devastate Families
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Mar 22 12:06:38 EDT 2017
'Those Visits Were Everything': How Prison Visitation Cuts Devastate
by Victoria Law - March 22, 2017
Jenise Britt sees her husband at Sing Sing, one of New York's 17
maximum-security prisons, at least twice a week. From her job in Bryant
Park, it's only a short walk to Grand Central and the 7:19 train to
Ossining. She tries to visit on weekdays to avoid the more crowded
weekends, when the noise and nearby bodies make intimate conversations
nearly impossible. The twice-weekly visits help the couple remain close
despite her husband's 18-to-life sentence and the fact that his first
parole hearing isn't until 2024.
But New York governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget
means that Britt—and other family members—will have no choice but to
contend with crowds, longer waits and the possibility of shorter visits
to see their incarcerated loved ones. Buried in the governor's budget is
a proposal to reduce the number of visiting days in maximum-security
prisons from seven to just Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, a move that
he told Democrats would save the state $2.6 million by eliminating 39
Family members and advocates say the cuts will discourage visiting with
more crowded visiting rooms, longer waits, and shorter visits, impacting
relationships already strained by lengthy prison sentences.
"I don't think that's fair," said 16-year-old Margarita, whose father
has been incarcerated since she was three or four years old. "If we have
a vacation during the week, we want to see our parents." She recalls
going to visit her father two days before her 15th birthday. "Usually,
if we talk on the phone, it's like, 'Happy birthday. Have fun,'" she
recalled. But that day, they spent several hours together talking,
walking around the outside visiting area and playing Monopoly.
"Kids—they want to see their parents more," she added. "[These cuts] are
just taking away time from our parents."
As of March 14, 2017, 50,476 people were incarcerated in New York state
prisons. Similar to policing policies and practices across the country,
incarceration disproportionately impacts communities of color,
particularly African-American communities. Almost half (49 percent) of
in the state's prisons are Black; the other half are white (24.4
percent) and Latino (24 percent). Sixty percent are parents to living
children, and the impact of parental incarceration, like incarceration
itself, disproportionately affects families of color. African-American
children are seven times
likely, and Latino children are twice
likely, to have a parent in prison as their white peers. Incarceration
doesn't affect just children and parents—other family members, such as
spouses, non-married partners, parents and siblings, also feel the brunt
of their loved ones' absence. In-person visits allow families to
maintain their relationships despite long periods of separation. But
Cuomo's cuts mean that the 21,525 people in maximum-security prisons
face the possibility of fewer—and shorter—visits.
Jolene Russ relies on visits to stay connected to her husband, who has
served 17 years of a 49-year sentence at the prison in Elmira. Russ
works full-time and typically visits on the weekends, which she
describes as "elbow-to-elbow. There's no room to move." But there have
been times during her husband's incarceration that her visit couldn't
wait. Last year, for instance, death hit her husband's family hard—first
his father died, followed by his brother and then his nephew.
Kids—they want to see their parents more. [These cuts] are just
taking away time from our parents.
"Have you ever had to call the chaplain?" Russ asked, her question laden
with frustration from repeated experiences. That's the start of the
standard prison procedure for a death in the family—a family member
calls the prison chaplain to report the death and the funeral
arrangements. The chaplain takes down the information, which prison
administrators then verify, a process that may take a few days. Once
they do, the prisoner is called into the chaplain's office, where he is
told about the death and the date of the funeral. "That's the way it
goes. There's no compassion, no sit-down counseling or services offered."
When her husband's brother died, Russ still had to call the chaplain.
But she took the following day off work and drove the three hours to the
prison to tell her husband in person. "We're able to talk about it," she
explained. "He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and
to lean on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in
his cell." The chaplain didn't call her husband into the office until
two days after her visit.
It works the other way as well. Russ recalls a time when she was feeling
overwhelmed by the plethora of responsibilities that she had to manage
without her husband's presence and physical support. "I was taken out of
work by my physician, and he encouraged me to engage in tasks that would
bring me peace and get me organized," she recalled. She spent that
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday visiting her husband. During those
six-hour visits, the couple talked about her tasks and responsibilities.
Together, they created a feasible time management schedule and financial
budget. In addition, working to help create a budget and schedule
enabled her husband to feel like a participating member of the family.
Russ recalled him telling her, "For the first time in a long time I
don't feel like your husband that's locked up. I just feel like your
Cutting weekday visits would mean longer lines and more crowded visiting
rooms. Elmira's visiting policy dictates
<http://www.doccs.ny.gov/Visitation/Elmira_Overcrowding.pdf> that, when
the visiting room is overcrowded, visitors who live within 100 miles of
the prison are the first to have their visits ended early. But, even
though Russ lives nearly 200 miles away, she's had her visits cut short
on weekends as well.
The governor's budget proposal calls for expanding the use of video
visits to replace weekday visits. Russ insists that this won't be the
same. "It would mean not being able to reach across the table and touch
his hand or, if we're having an intimate moment, to kiss his face," she
mused. "It's human contact."
Video visits are how 16-year-old Jamaill sees his father, who went to
prison before the boy's first birthday. His father is incarcerated at
Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, approximately 260 miles
from New York City. The distance means that Jamaill can only visit twice
a year. For the past two years, he's been using the Osborne
Association's video visiting program
<http://www.osborneny.org/programSubPage.cfm?subPageID=58> twice a
month. But nothing compares to being able to see his father in person.
"I can be myself," he told Broadly. "I can touch him; we can play
cards." If Jamaill has something personal to tell his father, he doesn't
feel comfortable doing so during a video visit.
Cuomo's proposed cuts won't affect him personally, but Jamaill knows
firsthand the toll it takes on a family to see each other primarily
through video chat. "That's not right," he said. "Some people want to
see their parents in person instead of seeing them on a television. They
might express their feelings more in person."
He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and to lean
on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in his
It's not just outside family members who will profoundly feel these
cuts. Elizabeth Harris went to prison when her daughters were two and
twelve. During her 17 years at Bedford Hills, the state's
maximum-security prison, family members brought her daughters to visit
at least twice a week, and sometimes even three to four times a week.
During weekday visits, the visiting room was less crowded and less
noisy. "I was able to spend /quality/ time with them," she recounted.
Harris didn't need to try to keep her toddler in her seat; instead, the
mother and daughter could walk around the visiting room or outside to
the play area.
On the weekends, however, the crowds and accompanying noise meant a much
different visit. Officers insisted that she keep her toddler from
wandering; if they were in the play area, she had to worry that another
child might run over or push the two-year-old. Even with her older
daughter, weekend visits were a challenge. "You find yourself screaming
to have a conversation," she recalled.
The visits allowed Harris to parent despite her lengthy sentence. "So
much happened on visits," Harris recounted. She recalls one visit with
her older daughter, then a teenager. They saw a couple at another table.
"It was two women and they kissed. That was her chance to tell me she
was attracted to girls," Harris said. Had they been limited to the
crowded and noisy weekend visits, she doesn't think her daughter would
have told her—but because of the less crowded weekday visit, "she was
able to have a conversation with her mom."
By the time Harris was released, her daughters were grown. However,
their bond had remained close despite her lengthy absence, which made
reacclimating to life outside of prison far easier. "I didn't have to
focus so hard on building a relationship with my children because it was
already there," she said. "I had more energy to focus on finding
employment, housing. I wanted to go back to school. I had time to focus
on me because I knew our relationship was secure."
Some people want to see their parents in person instead of seeing
them on a television. They might express their feelings more in person.
What's in Cuomo's proposed budget isn't necessarily what will be
enacted. The Assembly and Senate propose their own budgets. Then the
leaders of each house and the governor sit down to thrash out the final
budget, which needs to be passed by April 1. Meanwhile, advocates and
family members are trying to ensure that visiting cuts aren't part of
the final version.
Russ learned about the proposed visiting cuts from a newspaper article
She then told her husband, who had heard nothing about the changes—even
though they would affect him and thousands of others. "It's not being
done through legislation," she reflected. "It's being done in the inner
workings of the government that most people don't pay attention to
because they're busy grinding to get their life in order, because their
lives are so difficult." But she's determined to make sure that the
governor—and her legislators—are aware of the impact on family members.
She has written letters to Cuomo and to Assemblyman David Weprin, the
chair of the Committee on Correction and an opponent
of the cuts to visiting hours. She also took the day off work to attend
Weprin's rally in Albany against these cuts. Britt also attended the
Albany rally as well as another on the steps of City Hall in New York
City. "It was important for me to show up that day," she said.
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State legislators seem to understand their concerns. The budget
proposals from both houses
<http://legislation.nysenate.gov/pdf/bills/2017/R1050> restore the $2.6
for daily visits at maximum-security prisons; the Assembly proposal
also "includes new legislation to prohibit the Department of Corrections
and Community Supervision from reducing visitation opportunities at
maximum security prisons." Cuomo's office has not responded to Broadly's
request for comment.
"This [reduced visiting] will be a hardship for a lot of people," said
Britt. Harris, who has now been out of prison for four years, agrees.
"Those visits were everything to me," she remembered. Looking at Cuomo's
proposal to replace in-person visits with expanded video visiting, she
asks, "How can you have a personal relationship with someone on a TV
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