While vaccines and loosening restrictions have allowed many of us to spend much more time with family and friends, the social isolation of the pandemic lingers for people confined to Pennsylvania prisons.
Twenty months in, there are still significant barriers keeping families and friends apart from their incarcerated loved ones.
A number of county jails remain closed to family visits entirely as they face the threat of a coronavirus resurgence and struggle with low vaccination rates. In state prisons, the Department of Corrections has implemented a new scheduling system in an effort to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Unfortunately, it has also made the logistics of visiting more complicated and created barriers for families trying to reunite with incarcerated loved ones.
Under the DOC’s new system, families are able to visit only on certain days of the week and at certain times based on their loved one’s prison housing unit. Some families are struggling to find a time that works from these limited options, which may conflict with their work schedules or be out of reach because of the time it takes to travel to the prison. Visits also must be scheduled online, creating a barrier for people with low tech literacy or who don’t have access to the internet.
Brian T. and his wife Karen live in Media, Pennsylvania and told the Prison Society about some of these challenges last Friday while they drove five and a half hours across the state to visit their son at SCI Forest. They both work full time and normally try to visit on the weekend. But the only visiting slots available on Saturday or Sunday were at 8:30 a.m., far earlier than they could get there given their long drive. So they had to take a day off work to visit on Friday, when an afternoon slot was available.
Brian noted that another option would have been to drive up the day before one of the weekend morning slots and stay overnight in a hotel. But the family already spends about $200 a month toward phone calls to the prison and their son’s commissary account, and can’t afford the expense of a hotel every time they visit.
"We’re middle class, and there are so many people who are in way worse financial positions than we are who have to do what we do, and that expense is so much greater for them,” Karen said.
The DOC’s new scheduled visiting system makes access to prison visits especially tenuous for people with even more limited financial means. They may not have the ability to take a day off work to accommodate the limited visiting windows. If they don’t have a car, transportation becomes another barrier. The logistics of group transportation are unworkable when people have to schedule their visits during predetermined windows that often don’t overlap. As a result, the Prison Society’s bus service to state prisons remains suspended, but we stand ready to work with the DOC to find a solution.
The virtual visits the DOC began offering during the pandemic provide another way for families to stay connected with people in custody, but they can’t replace the comfort and support of an in-person visit. Felicia Dusha, 26, has an incarcerated older sister whom she and her mother haven't been able to visit as often as they could before the pandemic.
“I know that it means so much to her to have us as a support system, because it’s such a lonely place,” Dusha said. “And on a selfish note, she helps support me.”
Research has demonstrated that in-person visits can help incarcerated people cope with mental health issues. That makes them especially important after months of COVID lockdowns that kept incarcerated people in conditions resembling solitary confinement.
While it’s important for prisons to remain vigilant against the threat of COVID-19, visiting policies should balance this concern against the need to support the mental health of incarcerated people.
The Prison Society is helping families navigate some of the barriers to reconnecting with incarcerated loved ones. Our Customer Service Associate, Lara Bros, has helped set up the online accounts required to schedule in-person visits, and assisted several families who have come into our office with setting up video visits. These virtual visits continue to be plagued by technical issues that have frustrated users since the DOC switched from Zoom to Polycom as the service provider. Last week, Lara helped a woman who struggles to use technology due to a traumatic brain injury use Polycom to connect with her incarcerated brother.
"During their visit, the audio cut out three times, and they spent a good 10 minutes of their 45 minute visit, their first one in three years, just waiting for the audio to go back,” Lara says. “She did tell me after that she was still grateful to speak to him and grateful for the Prison Society because she doesn't think she would have been able to do the visit at home by herself."
Philadelphia to reopen for jail visits, while Allegheny remains closed
On a positive note, Philadelphia will resume in-person visits in the city’s jails for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic on November 15. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Jail remains closed to family visitors. An Allegheny County spokesperson told us there is “an ongoing conversation with leadership which is trying to develop options that protect the population and staff while allowing for relaxed restrictions on visitation.” In July, the jail’s administration cited low vaccination rates to justify the restriction.
The Prison Society calls on all state and county officials to: