For Father’s Day this year, Terrick found himself having to choose between his children.
Incarcerated at Mount Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County, it had been three years since he last spent a Father’s Day in the presence of his children. Two years earlier in March 2020, Governor Jim Justice declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19, and in-person visits at West Virginia prisons abruptly came to an end. Just before Christmas 2020, two of Terrick’s daughters lost their mother to a car accident. Since then, he said, he’s been “trying to parent through a tablet” (on restrictive and expensive video calls).
Father’s Day 2022 should have been different. The state had begun to restore its visitation policies. Terrick hoped he could be with both his daughters and his 12-year-old boy (from a different relationship). But the new visitation policies wouldn’t allow it.
Before, a person could receive a visit from three adults (or two adults with children). Now, visits are limited to two adults (or one adult and two minor children). Forced to choose, he apologized to his boy. There just weren’t enough spots.
Sentences are not served alone by the people incarcerated. Children are especially harmed when a parent goes to jail or prison. Considered an adverse childhood experience by the CDC, having a parent behind bars is linked to illnesses like asthma, anxiety, depression, and acting out; economic hardship; and poorer physical and mental health in adulthood. This experience is not rare. Approximately one in 10 West Virginia kids have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their childhood.
It would be two years before people behind bars in West Virginia could see their loved ones in person. In April 2022, in-person visitation returned to West Virginia prisons, but the rules had changed.
Before the state of emergency, prisons allowed limited displays of affection: a hug (but not a kiss) at the beginning and end of the visit, holding hands in plain view, allowing a child under the age of 5 to sit in their father’s lap. Now, there is no physical contact allowed “before, during, or after the visit” and visitors 2-years and older must wear a mask.
Before, people incarcerated at Mt. Olive had 15 hours every month to visit with loved ones, and the chance to earn five additional hours with good behavior. Now, they have a one-hour visit per month.
Policies this cruel have costs.
Facilities in other states that eliminated visitation have experienced more chaos: more disciplinary infractions, increased contraband, and more assaults on staff and other residents.
Conversely, visitation – especially consistent visitation – reduces misconduct. The benefits continue after a person’s release. A study of people released from Florida prisons found that “any visitation and more frequent visitation were both associated with a lower likelihood of recidivism.” An analysis by the Minnesota Department of Corrections revealed that any visit reduced the risk of felony recidivism by 13 percent and technical violations by 25 percent. In Fiscal Year 2021, approximately one out of every four people sent to a West Virginia prison were incarcerated due to a technical violation of probation or parole.
Increased visitation not only keeps families connected, but it can also make prisons safer and its residents less likely to return.
West Virginia’s Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) has an opportunity to reap these benefits. Last month, Governor Justice announced that the state of emergency declared in response to the pandemic will end on January 1, 2023. The Governor’s proclamation urged state agencies to face the pandemic’s remaining challenges “under non-emergency processes.”
The chance to rewrite visitation policies could not come at a better time for DCR.
Staff vacancies have nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic, prompting Governor Justice to declare a state of emergency in the summer of 2022, and to deploy National Guard members to fill vacancies in jails and prisons. Despite pay increases and signing bonuses for DCR employees, there are still 1,015 vacancies in West Virginia jails and prisons.
Prisons hurt people (see here and here). Visitation lessens that harm – for incarcerated people, for their families, and for the people who work in corrections. If the state cares about retaining staff, the acting DCR Commissioner will take bold action to not only return to pre-pandemic visitation policies, but to make them even stronger.
This policy change would cost next to nothing. For Terrick’s family, it would mean the world.