Lawmakers continued to press the Department of Corrections about post-pandemic barriers to in-person prison visits in this week’s budget hearing in the state senate.
Thanks to ongoing efforts to call attention to the importance of family visits, Acting Secretary Laurel Harry promised to consider funding a limited “pilot” to restore direct, affordable transportation for families to visit loved ones in a small number of state prisons.
“We’re open to a pilot, because we want to make sure that whatever the needs of visitors are, we address those,” Harry said before the senate appropriations committee Tuesday.
Senators also raised concerns about the restrictive visiting procedures in use since the pandemic and called more attention to problems with the department’s in-cell dining practices.
Harry admits fewer loved ones are visiting in person
Throughout the hearing, senators noted that families have been making fewer in-person visits to state prisons since the pandemic, owing to limited visiting schedules, a new online scheduling system, and the lack of transportation. Harry repeatedly challenged the notion that fewer visits were occurring, arguing that the introduction of video visits “enhanced inmate visitation opportunities.” But Senator Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) stressed the need to make a distinction between in-person and virtual visits.
“Given that in-person visits are highly correlated with reducing recidivism,” Street said, referring to the DOC’s most recent recidivism report, “I think it’s important.”
When pressed to distinguish between in-person and virtual visits, Harry admitted that there were fewer in-person visits occurring now compared to before the pandemic.
In an exchange with Senator Nikil Saval (D-Philadelphia), Acting Secretary Harry also denied that the new visiting system, including a requirement to schedule visits online, was preventing people from visiting incarcerated loved ones.
“We haven’t seen that–that folks aren’t coming because of the scheduling system,” she said.
“We’ve seen it,” Saval responded. “This is a widely experienced phenomenon.” Saval asked why it was necessary to keep the restrictive scheduling system in place.
“It’s a security enhancement for us,” Harry said. She said the online system helped prevent contraband from being smuggled in by visitors, and agreed to provide Saval with data to back up her claim.
Senator Street seconded Saval’s concern. “The digital divide is real,” Street said. “In many communities in which the families of inmates reside, there is a barrier created when there is an online process required.”
More scrutiny of in-cell dining policy
Senator Saval also questioned Acting Secretary Harry on the department’s plans to address problems with prison food service associated with the in-cell dining policy. He cited the Prison Society survey finding that came up in last week’s budget hearing in the house, that 73 percent of incarcerated people spend more money on food at the commissary since the DOC closed prison dining halls.
“If people are having to spend their own money on food, I mean that sort of suggests ... the meal portions aren’t sufficient or there’s something going on,” Saval said.
“That’s a choice,” Harry replied. “Sometimes they do that to supplement their meals, but they get three meals a day.”
Saval indicated he would continue to investigate concerns about food service in prisons.