Shawna’s two young children haven’t seen their dad since he was detained at Rikers Island on a gun charge in January.
“This has been bad,” said Shawna, who asked to be identified by her first name due to fears of retaliation by correction officers. “Everytime we are on the phone, the kids ask when he’s coming home. My son keeps saying he just wants to give his dad a million hugs.”
After more than a year without in-person visits, Department of Correction officials are gearing up to restart face-to-face meetings at city jails as soon as April, according to Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Warden/Deputy Wardens Association.
Jail supervisors have begun training staff on updated protocols that will require visitors and inmates to wear masks and remain socially distant when possible, according to a correction officer who recently took the course.
“The instructor told us it would be starting up again early next month,” the officer told THE CITY.
City jail officials have said they are waiting for the COVID-19 infection rate throughout the city — and behind bars — to go down before resuming in-person visits. They have declined to detail what benchmarks must be met before that can happen. Some 57 detainees had confirmed positive coronavirus cases as of March 17, according to department records.
A Department of Correction spokesperson said a date for the return of in-person visits at Rikers Island and other city jails had yet to be set.
“But we are working closely with our health partners to make sure we are ready once it’s safe to do so,” added the spokesperson, Danielle DeSouza.
Inmate advocates contend that the city should do more to accommodate in-person visits, and fear any plan to relaunch the system next month could be torpedoed if COVID-19 infection rates go up.
Meanwhile, the department issued new rules on March 1 for officers handling visits, according to the 49-page directive obtained by THE CITY. All officers must conduct pat frisks in areas with video cameras. They also must obtain written consent from visitors before hands-on searches.
That rule was put in place after a group of female visitors sued, arguing they were illegally forced to drop their pants or take off their bras during searches. The de Blasio administration settled a class action lawsuit for $12.5 million in December 2019.
Static on Virtual Visits
The city jail system cut off visits last March as the pandemic spread through New York. Correction officials have said that three inmates have died of COVID-19, but a recent report by THE CITY found that at least six men have succumbed after contracting the virus in local lockups.
The state prison system began allowing visits to resume on Aug. 6 with some restrictions. But that was halted on Dec. 30 when COVID-19 cases started spiking.
The federal Bureau of Prisons let some in-person visits without contact begin on Nov. 25.
In the absence of in-person meetings, city jail officials have struggled to offer a sufficient digital alternative.
Jail administrators need up to two weeks to schedule each “tele-visit’’ where inmates can talk to loved ones via a video hookup, according to Dana Wax, deputy chief of staff to Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann.
“We feel very confident that we have the capacity needed to provide tele-visits to people in custody,” she testified at a Feb. 9 hearing held by the Board of Correction, which oversees city jails.
Dr. Robert Cohen, a Board of Correction member, noted that defore the pandemic, inmates were allowed in-person visits up to three days a week.
“Would it be reasonable for you to have a greater goal like three days” for virtual visits? he asked Wax. “I mean there’s no transportation issues involved here.”
Wax said she wasn’t clear what it “would look like to change our process to that extent.”
Cohen and others, have urged the department to expand the online visit capacity.
“It’s great people got visits within two weeks, but I think we’d all agree that’s not enough,” he said.
‘They Are So Isolated’
In one case late last year, a detainee who uses a wheelchair told THE CITY that he was repeatedly unable to schedule a digital visit because the space where the screen was mounted was not accessible.
Research shows that family visits, especially for younger detainees, can be therapeutic and helps reduce recidivism.
“The lack of in-person visits here, especially for young children who cannot build or maintain attachment via televisit, could literally be changing the course of their lives,” said Tanya Krupat, director of the Osborne Center for Justice Across Generations, referring to foster children behind bars.
Inmate advocates have long argued that the city jail system needs to streamline the visit process. Before the pandemic, it often took hours to reach a loved one on Rikers Island. The correction department shuttled visitors around the island via a network of buses.
But visitors can get stuck waiting for hours throughout a maze of checkpoints and for the buses to arrive.
Supporters of the plan to close Rikers Island and open smaller jails in every borough except Staten Island say the new set-up would make visits easier for many families.
“I can’t imagine being separated from my family and not being eligible for the vaccine and not knowing when I’m going to see a judge,” said Brandon Holmes, co-director of the Freedom Agenda, a nonprofit “dedicated to organizing people and communities directly impacted by incarceration.”
“We will never fully see what’s happening behind bars because they are so isolated,” Holmes added.