The executive budget for 2017-2018 from Governor Cuomo’s office includes a plan to cut visitation at New York State’s 17 maximum security prisons, reducing the number of visiting days from seven to three, despite the measurably positive impact of the visitation program.
The Auburn Pub reports that if approved, the budget would cut 39 jobs for correctional officers, and save the state about $2.6 million in a proposed 2018 budget of $3.276 billion for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. That budget has been increased $81.3 million since the previous year, making the decision to slash a service that is to the benefit of all even more baffling.
A spokesperson for the state Division of Budget, Morris Peters, told Auburn Pub that the plan to reduce visits to weekends and holidays makes sense. “Weekend visitations are the most popular as many families have to travel long distances,” said Peters. Peters also says there are plans to expand the video conferencing services to allow inmates to communicate with their families from a distance. The director of the Correctional Association of New York State’s Prison Visiting Project, Jack Beck, thinks this is an unsatisfactory solution:
“Basically going from seven days to three for maximum security facilities will mean that, I think, for many people they will not be able to have their visit or they will be substantially shortened,” Beck said. “It will clearly deteriorate the relationship between an incarcerated person and their family.”
In an article on the budget proposal on Broadly, writer Victoria Law interviewed a number of families who rely on visitation, including a woman named Elizabeth Harris who served 17 years at Bedford Hills. Harris was able to see her daughters twice a week because of weekday visits:
The visits allowed Harris to parent despite her lengthy sentence. “So much happened on visits,” Harris recounted. She recalls one visit with her older daughter, then a teenager. They saw a couple at another table. “It was two women and they kissed. That was her chance to tell me she was attracted to girls,” Harris said. Had they been limited to the crowded and noisy weekend visits, she doesn’t think her daughter would have told her—but because of the less crowded weekday visit, “she was able to have a conversation with her mom.”
Harris says that being able to maintain that relationship through her sentence made returning to society upon her release much easier.
“I didn’t have to focus so hard on building a relationship with my children because it was already there,” said Harris told Law, “I had more energy to focus on finding employment, housing. I wanted to go back to school. I had time to focus on me because I knew our relationship was secure.”
Harris’s observations are supported by research that shows recidivism rates fall exponentially when people are able to reenter their community with the support of family, and those relationships are maintained by face-to-face visits. As Beck told the Auburn Pub, “There’s nothing more important than being able to come in and hug the person that you love.”