People incarcerated in state prisons who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 could begin visiting with loved ones in person again last week for the first time since March 2020. The Department of Corrections has also lifted some other COVID-era restrictions around visiting, reopening child play areas and vending machines in visiting rooms.
But new visiting policies introduced during the pandemic continue to create barriers for families.
The Prison Society receives constant calls and emails from people encountering these obstacles, including fewer visiting time slots to choose from, visits that are canceled on short notice, and a lack of transportation to prisons that are often hundreds of miles from home.
Scheduling system creates barriers
Under a new system, the DOC put in place when visits to state prisons resumed last summer, visits can be scheduled during a limited number of weekly time slots based on the housing unit of the incarcerated person. That makes it hard for some people to find a time that accommodates their work schedule. The long distances loved ones often travel to get to the prisons limit their options even further.
Visits must also be scheduled online at least three days in advance, which can be a barrier for people without reliable internet access or who have unpredictable work schedules. And while families must plan their visits well ahead of time, the prisons can cancel these anticipated reunions at a moment’s notice. One parent of an incarcerated person who wrote to us found out a visit was canceled only after arriving at the prison after a 10-hour journey. Lockdowns and low staffing levels are among the reasons we often hear cited to explain cancellations.
Unmet need for transportation
The Prison Society has also been getting more calls asking whenour bus service to state prisons will be up and running again. For many families in the Philadelphia area, it was the only way to make the trip to see loved ones incarcerated hundreds of miles from home. Before the pandemic put the program on hiatus, the buses allowed Virginia Hammond to make regular visits to SCI Mahanoy to visit her son, Chris.
“Without the family transportation program, many including myself would not be able to maintain [that] kind of relationship with our loved one,” Virginia says.
A similar service provided with our partners in Pittsburgh, Wesley Family Services, allowed families in Southwestern Pennsylvania to stay connected to loved ones.
But the Department of Corrections has yet to make the decisions necessary to enable affordable, direct bus service for families to resume. The logistics are still unworkable under the new visiting schedules that require people to visit on different days of the week. And the Department would need to restart its decades-long financial commitment to helping families connect.
Fostering connection through prison visits contributes to safer prison environments, supports successful reintegration, and reduces collateral harm to communities caused by mass incarceration.
The Prison Society remains ready, willing, and able to partner with the DOC to provide this affordable transportation option again and reunite families separated by incarceration.
We’re here to help.