One of the hidden consequences of mass incarceration is its impact on families as they are separated from loved ones. When family members aren’t able to visit prisoners, community ties are broken and recidivism increases. Even when visitation happens, visitors are often forced to undergo harassment and humiliation as they navigate the visitation process.
The impact of these practices falls disproportionately on women, both as incarcerated people struggling to see their families and as the ones most likely to visit jail and prison.
We are a survivor of incarceration (KM) and a former chief medical officer of the New York City jail system (HV), and our view is that restrictive and abusive visitation practices often fail to address glaring security issues driven by staff contraband.
Efforts to improve visitation should not rely on remote video contact, which may drive profits for vendors and cut down on staffing resources at facilities but robs families of the in-person contact they need and deserve.
Women endure many of the most abusive and humiliating practices associated with jail visitation. Working in the New York City jail system, one of us (HV) would see long lines with their children waiting to visit every day, and patients would relate stories of sexual harassment suffered by their loved ones during visitation. Verbal harassment was typical and illegal strip searches were conducted with little accountability or oversight.
Even in the absence of physical or sexual abuse, a single visit to the penal colony of Rikers Island can involve an entire day, with multiple searches, including canines, and even removal of infant diapers.
Security staff members regularly yell profanity at the visitors and threaten them regarding compliance with rules that are often unclear or ever changing. Security staff have also intermittently cracked down on the ability of parents to hold their children or hug a loved one during visits, under the guise of combatting the flow of contraband into the jails. But in many cases, evidence clearly points to jail staff as the primary source of illicit contraband in jails.
The visiting rooms at Rikers are often overcrowded, loud and very chaotic, with everyone shouting over each other simply to be heard. Mothers are given the opportunity to hug and hold their younger children during a visit; unfortunately, there is no separate space for parents to have a visit with their children in a more private, quieter and less traumatic environment.
Many mothers face the dilemma of whether to tell their children they are in prison or at school or in the hospital.
I (KM) too was conflicted about what to tell my three-year-old daughter, so we settled on the “hospital,” until one day she became sick and had to be taken to see the doctor. She did not want to go for fear that she would end up in the hospital like her mother. Eventually we told her the truth, but I still feel she was too young to understand the concept of jail or prison and what it meant to be detained or incarcerated.
For incarcerated women, a punitive approach to visitation is even more damaging. Over 60 percent of incarcerated women are the primary caretakers of young children, and their ability to maintain contact and support with their children is critical for their return home and the physical and emotional development of their children.
In settings that have implemented humane and comprehensive visitation programs, such as Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women and NYSDOC Taconic Correctional Facility, visitation is valued as a core element of maintaining security, not simply as an added burden on security staff. A separate room is set aside for moms to spend time with their children to do arts and crafts, play with toys and various board games, read books or simply spend quiet time together.
For birthdays and Christmas, arrangements are made for gifts (which are donated) and birthday cakes to be available to try to normalize things as much as possible. These two programs are run by Hour Children, a not-for-profit organization based in Long Island City, the same organization that oversees a nursery program at Bedford Hills CF.
With increased focus on the importance of re-entry and undoing mass incarceration, there are clear pathways to improve visitation. First, facilities should not be forced to rely on video visits as the primary way for people to connect with their loved ones behind bars, such as occurs at the Louisville (Ky.) Community Correctional Center. There, the traffic of families to visit their loved ones in jail was viewed as a burden to the facility, and jail administrators invested heavily in a video/messaging system instead of facilitating actual visits.
This approach is heavily promoted by companies that sell the video equipment. But the physical presence of a loved one cannot be replaced by a grainy video image, especially for children who are already anxious about the wellbeing of their family member and who yearn for their embrace.
Despite more than ample evidence highlighting the importance of maintaining close physical contact between mothers and their children, the visitation process in jails and prisons often works in a harmful, traumatizing and degrading manner. The outright abuse and harassment endured by visitors has nothing to do with maintaining security. Model visitation programs represent the importance of a kiss or hug between loved ones, especially mothers and their children.
Kathy Morse advocates on issues relating to the detention and incarceration of women in the U.S. She spent nearly a year detained on Rikers Island and three years incarcerated in other New York State facilities. Dr. Homer Venters is the senior health and justice fellow for Community Oriented Correctional Health Services and author of “Life and Death in Rikers Island.”