It has been 14 months that people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons have gone without a visit from family, friends or loved ones. Suspending visits was an important measure to keep the coronavirus out of prisons, but it’s no longer necessary to prolong this painful separation. With more of the state vaccinated and cases falling, Pennsylvania will put an end to nearly all COVID-19 restrictions at the end of the month. But the Department of Corrections, and most county jails, have yet to announce when families will be allowed to visit prisons again.
It’s time for the DOC to commit to a plan to safely resume visits in state prisons.
To date, the only information the department has provided is that it will announce a plan sometime in the future and that it will likely be a staged plan with some facilities allowing visits before others.
Meanwhile, the corrections systems in 28 states plus the federal prison system have already resumed in-person visits. Most of these states have had higher coronavirus infection rates in prison than Pennsylvania, and all are placing certain conditions on visiting as a safeguard against the risk of spreading the virus. Some are opening individual facilities on a case-by-case basis, limiting the frequency of visits or the number of visitors, or allowing non-contact visits only.
Joe Amon, a clinical professor of community health and prevention at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, says it would “absolutely” be safe for Pennsylvania prisons to begin allowing visitors again with basic, familiar precautions, like screening visitors upon entry, requiring masks, physical distancing, and arranging for outdoor visits when possible. He points out that the prisons have already figured out how to handle the inflow of others from the community, including the hundreds of corrections officers and other staff who come and go daily.
“There’s no reason, I think, that prison or correctional officials should be saying that it's impossible to do this,” Amon says. "It’s important for the welfare of the people who are in detention and it's the right scientific and humane thing to do."
The suspension of visits has added to the extreme isolation incarcerated people have endured in the past 14 months. For much of that time, lockdowns have kept them confined in their cells for all but an hour per day, while depriving them of access to libraries, activities, and regular time in the prison yard.
JoAnn Wyjadka’s 27-year-old son Corey has less than a year of his sentence left before he’s eligible for parole, and she worries that isolation during the pandemic may make his readjustment to life outside of prison more difficult. Recently, he was transferred to a state prison that’s much closer to her home in Philadelphia, but it brought them no nearer to seeing each other again in the flesh.
"It’s hard because he's only an hour away,” JoAnn says. If not for the DOC’s ongoing ban on visits, she would make frequent trips to see Corey. “I think it would help with his re-entry."
While they talk on the phone regularly and use the video visiting system the DOC put in place during the pandemic, JoAnn says those calls can’t replace the experience of an in-person visit. Like many other families, their calls have sometimes been plagued with connectivity issues. But JoAnn says one of their biggest problems with the virtual visits has been that sometimes she and Corey can’t look each other in the eye, because of the way the camera is situated on his end. It’s also hard to talk about private family matters when they know their conversation is being recorded.
For others facing longer periods of incarceration, visits can be a much-needed source of hope. Virginia Hammond’s son Chris, 46, has been in prison since 2001 serving a life sentence. During their visits, they would have sprawling conversations that jumped between the news, politics, and philosophy--and challenge each other to a game of Scrabble.
Chris looked forward to the competitions, Virginia says, telling her, “I'm going to study my words and you're not going to beat me next month.” The visits, she says, “did a lot to lift his spirits.”
"He had a forward-looking perspective after the visit, which I think is one of the benefits.”
We need not wait any longer to give incarcerated people and their loved ones the hope of a reunion.
We ask you to help us. Call Governor Wolf’s office and ask him to make in-person visits part of the state’s Memorial Day reopening plan.
The state’s policies set an example that county jails look to for guidance. Of Pennsylvania's 63 county facilities, 19 have already reopened for family visits. More will follow suit when the DOC lifts its suspension. Click HERE to see if the jail where your loved one is held has started allowing visits.
It is time for county jails to safely resume in-person visits.
We also call on all state and county officials to: