By Ivana Gonzales, LSPC Contributing Writer
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation saved millions of dollars in visiting costs while visiting was shut down or severely curtailed during the pandemic. It should not be allowed to claim a lack of resources to provide both in-person and video-calling visiting to help repair the damage that has been caused by prolonged family separation over the last two years.
CDCR’s Promised “Next
Steps” Do Not Address the
On May 28, 2022, the Budget Sub-5 Committee held a hearing that included testimony regarding visiting issues occurring in California prisons. CDCR issued a report about visiting, but it did not address the subcommittee’s concerns:
CDCR promises customer service and other training for visitation staff. While possibly useful, such training does not address the structural problem of insufficient in-person visiting time to match the demand of family members seeking to visit their incarcerated loved ones. Moreover, the plan of training visitation staff on June 10, 2022, illustrates CDCR’s lack of commitment to visiting as this training took place on a Friday when all prisons hold in-person visiting. This scheduling decision caused the cancellation of visiting that day throughout the prison system (see cdcr. ca.gov/visitors/visiting-status/). We strongly suggest the subcommittee ask for the agenda for this training and ask what prompted the training, when the training was first planned, how it was funded, and why it could not have taken place on a date that did not cause the cancellation of in-person visiting or video calling.
CDCR makes a vague promise to work with the VSA vendor to resolve technical problems. However, this does not solve the structural problem of insufficient in-person visiting time. Moreover, CDCR’s report incorrectly suggests that it took action to stag-ger appointment openings in response to the subcommittee’s hearing. In fact, that action was taken long before the hearing in response to an outcry from frustrated family members, and it was still insufficient to prevent the experiences testified to by Laila Aziz and Senator Cortese. Regarding actions taken since the hearing, CDCR only vaguely reports that it is “working with ViaPath to evaluate the application to determine the cause and work towards a solution.” The sub-committee should ask for a more substantive response on this issue.
CDCR promises continuing discussions with Inmate Advisory Councils, the State-wide Inmate Family Council, and other “stakeholders.” Dialogue is helpful, but can not be an excuse for failing to implement the Legislature’s budget directives and should not be used as a cover for CDCR’s not proposing or considering a solution that would accommodate both the desire for video calls and full implementation of three in-person visiting days. We urge the subcommittee to ask CDCR to identify the stakeholders who will be invited to participate in these discussions, and we specifically request that the Coalition for Family Unity be included, as we represent family members of people incarcerated in California prisons across the state.
Finally, CDCR promises to implement transportation funding for expanded in-person visiting at some unspecified date. As described above, the subcommittee should require CDCR to account for the delay with much greater specificity. For example, CDCR argues that none of the bidders were able to accommodate 600 trips and for that reason has waited a whole year to request another bid. That could easily be solved by contracting with multiple bidders to start transporting California families to their loved ones and start making use of the ongoing $2.3 million allocation for transportation.
We look forward to continuing to work with the sub-committee to implement the Legislature’s directives and the governor to provide three in-person visiting days at all California prisons and the related transportation.
The Root of the Problem:
Repeal of the Right to Visit
in the 1990s
The root of the current visiting crisis is the repeal of incarcerated persons’ right to visit in the 1990s. Our goal is to restore that statutory right.
Former California Penal Code section 2600 provided: “A person sentenced to imprisonment in a state prison may, during any such period of confinement, be deprived of such rights, and only such rights, as is necessary in order to provide for the reasonable security of the institution in which he is confined and for the reasonable protection of the public.”
Former section 2601, subdivision (d) provided: “Not-withstanding any other provision of law, each such person shall have the following civil rights: … (d) To have personal visits; provided that the department may provide such restrictions as are necessary for the reasonable security of the institution.”
Former sections 2600–2601 remained basically the same until 1994 when the Legislature changed the section 2600 legal standard to “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests,” the highly deferential standard adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court for the enforcement of federal rights in actions against state prison officials. Two years later, the Legislature removed the right to “personal vis-its” from section 2601. The author’s goal was to make visiting a privilege rather than a right (except as guaranteed by the Constitution). In the sponsor’s words, “Only then can inmates be taught that they are accountable for their actions” and disabused of the misguided notion that people deserve something for nothing.”
This antiquated view is inconsistent with the Legislature’s current policy that incarceration is for rehabilitation and not merely punishment.
Nor is it consistent with the constitutional right of family members of incarcerated people — who have not been convicted of a crime and thus lawfully subject to punishment — to maintain their family relationships. After the right to personal visits was repealed in 1995, visiting hours were cut back from seven days a week to the mere two days of a week that are offered today. Moreover, excuses to deny visits have proliferated, including disciplinary sanctions for violations unrelated to visiting security, errors in visiting paperwork, and arbitrary enforcement of unwritten rules by whichever correctional officer happens to be on duty.
Editor’s note: Coalition for Family Unity is a program of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Part 1 of this article can be found in SQNews’ Oct. 2022 edition.