How Prison Visit Restrictions Force Parents to Make Tough Decisions

Patrick Stephens, a formerly incarcerated writer, explains how arbitrary, byzantine, and punitive visiting rules tear apart the families of the incarcerated—especially after the pandemic.

A man's hand reaches through a chain-link fence to touch his young daughter's hands.
Nenad Stojkovich via Flickr

How Prison Visit Restrictions Force Parents to Make Tough Decisions

Patrick Stephens, a formerly incarcerated writer, explains how arbitrary, byzantine, and punitive visiting rules tear apart the families of the incarcerated—especially after the pandemic.

The pain and frustration in Anthony Perez’s voice was palpable. 

“I haven’t seen my daughter since she was born and now she’s two,” he said. It was March 2022 and this was the response I’d received when I asked Anthony—who lived alongside me in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility at the time—when he would finally get to see his daughter in person. The child, Athena, was born when the facility began its COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020—and after Perez had already been incarcerated. Dealing with the deficiencies of the prison was hard enough. In fact, Perez would later be taken to an outside hospital after a serious COVID-19 infection. But dealing with the visitation shut down and the restrictions implemented when they did return added an exponential increase in stress. 

No physical contact was allowed. Visitors were separated from the incarcerated person by tables that ensured social distancing was maintained. At one point, hugs were only allowed briefly at the beginning and the end of every visit. None of that made Perez feel any better. None of those conditions made it any easier to see his daughter. “I didn’t want the first time I saw my daughter to be like that,” he said, “where I couldn’t even hold her.” 

As an incarcerated father myself, I could empathize with his frustration. I thought back to summer 2021 when my own son surprised me with a visit on Father’s Day. 

He was seated in the open visiting pavilion just outside of the regular visiting room and when I approached, he stood up to embrace me.

“Wussup Dad?” he said. 

The guard looked pained to have to prevent our impending hug. 

“No, no, no,” the corrections officer said. “You can’t do that.” 

It had been a little while since I had last seen my son. It seemed unfair that with all he had to deal with during my decades-long absence, even a hug was beyond his reach. But now, listening to my friend express his pain, I felt lucky that I had at least seen my own son be born. I felt fortunate that I held him just moments after he was delivered and that throughout my incarcerated years, I was able to hold him, talk to him, and even cook for him.

We take these things for granted, these normal familial interactions, but inside incarcerated spaces—especially during a deadly pandemic, when prison visitation and social-distancing rules had become stricter, more arbitrary, and confusingly enforced—every human contact is precious.

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Antonio is a bright eyed 4-year-old who loves to visit his father, Hector Roman, who was also incarcerated at Sing Sing alongside me. And of course, like most 4-year-olds, he doesn’t always understand prison’s notoriously arbitrary rules. He sees his father and, like always, he wants to run to him. He wants to sit in his lap and have his father throw him in the air. When daddy says, “Poppy, we have to follow the rules,” he relents, but moments later he is back to pushing the boundaries. 

For Roman, it is hard to be on a visit with his son like this. There is little to no opportunity to physically engage with him. The Osborne Association’s Children’s Center—where parents could play games or do other activities with their young children—has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. So the regular visiting room it is. But in that space, with six feet of table separating you from your child, the emotional barriers associated with parenting from behind an invisible wall become more tangible.  

“I didn’t want him thinking that Daddy doesn’t want him next to him,” Roman told me.

And disobeying the rules has serious consequences. At Sing Sing, unauthorized contact with a visitor can result in the immediate termination of the visit. Additionally, the incarcerated individual can be sent into quarantine for nearly two weeks if exposure is expected and the imprisoned person is not fully vaccinated. In quarantine, you are isolated from the general population and recreation is limited to one hour per day. You have one hour to shower and use the phone and kiosk before being shuttled back into a cold cell.

The prison can also suspend someone’s visiting privileges entirely. This can be a problem for men like Roman, who participate in the Family Reunion Program (FRP), where incarcerated people can spend time with their families in trailers. That all participants in FRP must maintain an acceptable visiting pattern, even when visiting under COVID-19 restrictions, is less than ideal. (According to a 2016 policy directive, family members who wanted to apply for the FRP needed to demonstrate a “recent and consistent visiting pattern,” which meant visiting at least three times within 12 months.)

“He shouldn’t have to come to [regular] visits just [to qualify] for the trailers,” says Roman. “Especially since we’d been satisfying the visit pattern prior to COVID.” From Roman’s perspective, there should have been a “visiting pattern waiver” allowing vaccinated participants in good standing prior to the pandemic to continue to participate, even if visits were disrupted due to social-distancing. It is a reasonable suggestion. But reasonable is not the forte of the criminalizing apparatus at play. 

“I go from playing with my son all day on the trailer to not being able to touch him on the regular visit,” Roman said. “How do I explain that to a 4-year-old?” 

For Nigel Francis, the incarcerated parent of two girls:  Madison, 16, and Niomi, 2, achieving the necessary visits to satisfy the FRP visiting pattern under the visiting restrictions became increasingly difficult. 

“They only allow two adults and one child now,” Francis told me. “How do I choose between my daughters? I have to do twice the visits just to satisfy the visit pattern requirements. How many times do I ask their mother to bring them up?”

It is a fair question, especially given the lopsided nature of the restrictive policies enacted to allegedly protect incarcerated people from COVID-19. While the policies have made it far more difficult for families to visit their loved ones, the rules do relatively little to address the real pandemic-related threat to incarcerated people—prison staff. Indeed, incarcerated people spend very little time with the people that visit them. Thus, the opportunity for infection is lower when compared to the possibility of exposure within the prison. Inside of prison, especially following a visit, incarcerated people are within close proximity to multiple officers whose very job is to pat them down and strip-frisk them. You can’t be socially distant and conduct a strip-frisk. Add to this the disturbing reality that many officers were initially reluctant to get vaccinated.

For Joseph Wilson, an incarcerated organizer and co-founder of the Sing Sing Family Collective (SSFC), the discrepancy is fertile ground for legal action. “It’s a violation of equal protection,” Wilson said. “My family has to get tested every time they come here, even if they have proof of vaccination. Why should we still have social-distancing in the visit room when I confront officers every day who don’t want to wear their masks or even protect themselves [by getting vaccinated]?” For Wilson, it is the height of hypocrisy. Beyond that, it represents deep negligence. The people charged with the care of incarcerated people are unwilling to take the necessary steps to protect their health and consequently the health of others. Half-jokingly, Wilson adds, “If I’m going to get COVID, I’d rather get it from my wife than from an officer.”

But most incarcerated fathers are not interested in waiting for a court to tell them they can be active parents during visitation. Their families are being impacted in the here and now. To them, the restrictions seem to unduly restrict their ability to assist their wives in whatever small way they can or bond with their children. 

In the case of Anthony Perez, he feels like less of a husband and a father the longer he’s prevented from fully embracing his daughter. His wife will have to travel by train and get their baby Athena up early for the trip. When they finally get to the prison, his wife will have to keep Athena with her the entire time. 

“That was my job, holding the baby so my wife could get a brief rest,” Perez said. It is a difficult pill to swallow when even the smallest of husbandly duties is denied to you. But even more painful is thinking about the time he missed bonding with his daughter. With some discomfort, he reflects that his daughter only hears his voice over the phone. 

“She knows my name, but I feel like a stranger to my own daughter,” he said.