By Ivana Gonzales, LSPC, Contributing Writer
Incarcerated people and their family members understand that visits are vital to sustaining mental health during incarceration and success after release. Visits help maintain family structures during incarceration and support family members on the outside as well as those inside. Visits provide children with loving parents to guide them through childhood and nurture them into becoming emotionally secure and productive adults, and give spouses and single parents the human connection and co-parenting support they deserve.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has severely curtailed visiting opportunities since the statutory right to visiting was repealed in the mid-1990s. Not only did CDCR reduce the number of regular visiting days to two-per-week, which led to rampant overcrowding and early termination of many visits, but it also adopted numerous policies that interfere with the right to visit, including denying visits for rule violations that have nothing to do with visiting. The situation has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, with visiting entirely suspended for months and only minimal supplemental phone and video contact.
As a result, a mere 10% of incarcerated people at many institutions receive any visits at all, much less regular visits, according to family members interviewed by Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC). Nationwide, anywhere from 39% to 74% of prisoners do not receive a single visit in prison, according to a 2016 report in Criminal Justice and Behavior.
Restoring the Right to Visit (AB 990)
The Coalition for Family Unity, a project of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, is fighting to restore visits as a right, not privilege. We are also fighting to increase the availability of visiting as well as other means of maintaining contact with incarcerated loved ones — such as video, phone and email — and to lift CDCR’s restrictions on the right to visit for non-visiting rule violations and denials of visitor applications for innocent errors on the application.
In 2021, the Coalition for Family Unity sponsored a bill that would have achieved these goals (Calif. Assembly Bill 990, Santiago). The bill passed both houses of the Legislature by wide margins, but was strenuously opposed by CDCR and ultimately vetoed by the Governor. Coalition for Family Unity is planning on re-introducing a bill to Restore the Right to Visit at the next legislative year. The fight is not over until we win!
Implementing the Third Day of In-Person Visiting
Meanwhile, the Coalition for Family Unity is working to require CDCR to fully implement the third day of in-person visiting that was added to CDCR’s budget — on an ongoing basis in 2021 — along with transportation support for every prison in the state. Although $20.3 million in funding became available in July 2021 for its implementation, only Pelican Bay State Prison currently provides three days of in-person visiting, notably without any increase in transportation assistance.
Unfortunately, CDCR is trying to cause divisions within the community of incarcerated people and their family members by suggesting that an increase of in-person visiting will cause a reduction in video calling due to “space limitation and other factors.” We need to demand at least three full days of in-person visiting in addition to video calling.
At the beginning of 2022, the Coalition for Family Unity reached out to Senator Maria Durazo for support through the Budget Sub-5 Committee in hopes that CDCR would be held accountable for the budget allocated for fill three days of in-person visiting.
On May 28, 2022 the Budget Sub-5 Committee held a hearing and with the first agenda item being visiting issues occurring in California prisons. Three family members involved with the Coalition for Family Unity testified on the need to follow the directives by legislators on visitation contained in the May 2021 Revised Budget.
“I call us ‘prison families’ because every decision CDCR makes directly impacts our children as we fight with every bone in our bodies to keep our families connected,” testified Laila Aziz from Pillars of the Community.
Senator Cortese also gave testimony from his wife Pattie Cortese, who works mentoring incarcerated people. Senator Cortese read from his wife’s email: “The current process to sign up for video visits is: log in at 6:29 am, not 6:28 or 6:30. 6:29 on Saturday morning for visits the following weekend. Visits cannot be scheduled earlier than 6:30 am. Even when you go through this procedure, there is a very small chance you will be able to secure a visit.”
The Senator then added in his own words, “When people’s rights are at stake and this kind of access problems are an issue…we need to go right to the cure.”
Senator Newman, another member of the Sub-5 Committee, who listened to Laila’s and Pattie Cortese’s testimony, responded by saying, “To Laila’s testimony — inhumane is the only word I can think of. It is not ok to dilly dally; people are living their lives now.
“It is just a shocking situation that you have a 5-second interval to determine where your son can connect with their father. We should not allow that, and I would like to hear an answer on how to fix it?” he said.
CDCR representatives Daniel Cueva and Kristine Montgomery, unfortunately, did not have any answers for the Senators and the families testifying. Mr. Cueva admitted that only one prison, Pelican Bay State prison, is offering three full days of in-person visit along with three video call days.
In a written report to the Sub-5 Committee, CDCR stated that they surveyed Inmate Advisory Councils and the Statewide Inmate Family Council, and it was in fact, those groups that decided they wanted a day allocated for video calls only.
“To better understand the desires of the incarcerated and visiting populations, CDCR surveyed the institutions’ Inmate Advisory Councils (IAC), which are made up of incarcerated elected representatives on yards at every prison, and the Statewide Inmate Family Council (SIFC), which are made up of family members and loved ones of incarcerated people who represent their interests, about the pilot video visiting program implemented in December 2020.
“The response was overwhelmingly in favor of continuing to dedicate one of the three visiting days for video visiting moving forward. Video visiting occurs in the same location as in-person visiting. Due to space limitation and other factors, video visiting and in-person visiting typically occur on separate days,” said the CDCR report. This statement from CDCR has yet to be confirmed by the groups involved.
For any Inmate Advisory Council members that are willing to confirm or dispute CDCR’s statements and share any CDCR surveys with us, please write to Ivana Gonzalez, Family Unity Coordinator, LSPC, 4400 Market Street, Oakland, CA 94608.
Coalition for Family Unity believes that incarcerated people and their family members need to demand three full days of in-person visiting in addition to video calling, which can take place simultaneously in other locations or in the same place at other times such as weekdays or evenings.