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The Need To Support Visits For Incarcerated People And Their Families

Several policies under consideration in New York would promote prison visits.

Last week, the Brooklyn Eagle looked at the story of Kaywonda and Javon Banks. They were childhood friends who fell out of touch for years. When they reconnected in 2001, Javon was in prison. He had been arrested as a 16-year-old, convicted of murder, and sentenced to 23 years to life in prison. Kaywonda began visiting him, and in 2017 they were married in a ceremony in prison. They are awaiting a decision on whether he will be released on parole this year. Kaywonda has been visiting Javon for nearly 16 years.

The Eagle’s Phil Frangipane chronicled a visit day for Kaywonda and her son. She tries to visit Javon at least every two weeks. It’s a long and expensive journey, costing at least $75 each time, and one that begins before dawn. They travel to Otisville Prison, a nearly four-hour journey. Each month, Kaywonda, who has three children, spends nearly $500 out of her Parks Department salary on the trips.

But she’s committed to visiting Javon. She told the Eagle: “There’s nothing I feel like I won’t do for him. I want him to feel like he’s always still connected to the outside world. He still has somebody that does love him unconditionally.”

Kaywonda and Javon are only two of the millions of people affected by the separation of families through the criminal legal system. Research released late last year has revealed that nearly half of all American adults have experienced the incarceration of a close relative.

On any given day, 2.7 million children have a parent in jail or prison. This is 1 in every 28 children, a national crisis. Black and Latinx children bear the brunt of this: One in 9 Black children (11.4 percent), 1 in 28 Latinx children (3.5 percent), and 1 in 57 white children (1.8 percent) in the United States have an incarcerated parent.

There is evidence that regular visits have substantial benefits, for incarcerated people and their families. A 2011 study looking at over 16,000 people released in Minnesota over a four-year period found that visits significantly lowered the risk of recidivism.

Despite the documented benefits, too frequently policymakers seek to discourage visits, including in New York, where an estimated 105,000 children have incarcerated parents.

The New York Initiative for the Children of Incarcerated Parents’ annual See Us, Support Us campaign focuses each October on supporting children’s right to visit their incarcerated parents. The campaign is guided by the principles of the Children of Incarcerated Parents’ Bill of Rights.

In an email to the Daily Appeal, Tanya Krupat of the Osborne Association described the impact of parental incarceration on children:

“The effects of a parent’s incarceration on children are vast and deep, and too often invisible to those outside the family. While each child and family experience this highly stigmatized separation differently, far too often their choices about the kinds and frequency of parent-child contact are decided by policies and practices rather than what is best for the child. Prison and jail visiting practices are often not considerate of children’s needs, and prisons especially can be very far away, rendering visiting costly and time-consuming.”

In 2011, New York did away with funding for the free bus service that transported family members to prisons for visits. A few years ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo put forward a proposal—which was withdrawn after pushback—cutting the number of visit days at some of the state prisons.

But there are also efforts to protect and improve visits for incarcerated people and their families. There are at least four policy proposals on the table in New York that would reinstate or expand visiting programs.

The first is a bill to ensure that when people are sent to prison that the state corrections department places them in facilities closest to their children’s homes. New York’s prisons are scattered across a state that stretches from New York City up north to the Canadian border and west to the Great Lakes. Incarcerated people, who are disproportionately from a few of the big cities, such as New York City, Buffalo, Albany, and Rochester, can be imprisoned hundreds of miles from home. Otisville, the prison where Javon Banks is held, is actually one of the closest to New York City.

The second bill would restore the free bus service, which would alleviate the financial burden of visits for families like Kaywonda Banks’s. The cost of the program is estimated to be $3 million—0.1 percent of the $3 billion corrections department budget.

The third proposal is to protect in-person visitsVideo calls have been aggressively promoted across the country as a replacement for visits. Video conferencing facilities can be a helpful supplement to visits, especially if they are offered free of charge or at affordable rates. But these calls, which proponents dub “video visitation,” are no substitute for in-person contact.

The fourth proposal would increase visit days in medium-security prisons to seven days a week. Making visits possible every day of the week would give family members with a variety of work arrangements a chance to visit.

There are other aspects of visits that have been threatened at different times, but are also  important to expand. Chesa Boudin, a public defender running for district attorney in San Francisco, has spoken about his experience visiting his parents in prison while growing up. The program Boudin has spoken about is the Family Reunion Program. Although colloquially described as “conjugal visits,” these visits are open to children, spouses, and family members. They take place in trailers (what the corrections department describes as a “private home-like setting”) for 36 to 44 hours at a time. Incarcerated people who meet specified criteria and are held at facilities where the program is available can take part in the program. The program has been repeatedly threatened over the years, including as recently as 2017. When Boudin was 10, he wrote a letter to the prison warden, asking that the program not be cut.

In an email to the Daily Appeal, Allison Hollihan of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents at the Osborne Association said: “Ultimately, what helps children the most is keeping a parent in the community when an alternative to incarceration is an appropriate sentence for a parent who commits a crime.” If parents are incarcerated, she continued, “placing parents in prisons closest to their children, implementing child-friendly visiting practices at prisons and jails, and considering the needs of a defendant’s children when making sentencing decisions” are necessary.