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Identity & Community

After More Than A Year, Some State Prisons To Allow In-Person Visitors Again

prison_sci_camp_hill.jpg
Carolyn Kaster
/
AP
In this Tuesday, April 13, 2010 photo, a solitary corrections officer looks out from a tower at one corner of the state prison in Camp Hill, Pa.

Five Western Pennsylvania facilities, including SCI Laurel Highlands and Cambridge Springs, will reopen to in-person visitors over the course of the next week, more than a year after the program was shut down due to COVID-19. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said the change in policy marks a move toward more normal operations, though officials warn it may still be a while before incarcerated people can see family.

“Maintaining connections with loved ones is very important for incarcerated individuals, in-person visitation is a big part of that,” DOC press secretary Maria Bivens said in an emailed statement. “At the same time, COVID remains a threat – particularly in congregate settings like prisons – so we are reinstating visitation in a calculated manner that protects the health of everyone involved.”

Bivens said the five facilities were chosen because of their high vaccination rates and low number of COVID cases. Prisons will continue to monitor vaccination rates and COVID-19 cases.

After 14 isolating months, incarcerated people and their loved ones are excited to see each other in person again, said Kirstin Cornnell, the Social Services Director at Pennsylvania Prison Society, noting that visitations have a positive impact on both parties and help foster connections between communities.

“The pandemic really only intensified the isolation felt by incarcerated people and their loved ones,” Cornnell said. “It’s been more than 14 months that incarcerated people have seen a loved one in person, and the majority of that time they’ve spent locked in their cells with limited to no access to programs, to outdoor time. And so the level of isolation people are experiencing is just utterly unprecedented, and we really need to be doing everything we can to get people connected.”

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told WESA’s The Confluence that the department has been assessing incarcerated people’s mental health throughout the pandemic, and offered programs to help.

“It’s always a challenge in prisons,” he said. “Fortunately, we have an infrastructure to provide these services and help people keep as well as they can during COVID. In the community, you’re hearing the same stuff, right? Being locked down is not fun. Being locked down while you’re already locked down inside a prison is even worse.”

But even though in-person visitations are allowed, Wetzel said it may still take a while before incarcerated people are able to see their loved ones face to face again.

Only a limited number of visits will likely be available each day. Visits must be scheduled at least three days in advance, and can last no more than one hour.

“It’s going to be a slow return, and folks are going to have to be patient. But we made a commitment from the beginning to reinstate visits, we’re following through on that,” Wetzel said.

The remaining 19 state prisons have yet to allow in-person visits, and facilities that are open to visitors could close if COVID-19 cases increase among incarcerated people. But Cornnell called the initial reopenings “a good first step.”

“We understand the department’s desire to be cautious and to do this as safely as possible. But we would ask for more transparency about what sort of benchmarks they’re looking for for opening the remaining 19 facilities that don’t have in-person visiting right now,” she said.

Cornnell said it’s important to include prisons and incarcerated people in states’ reopening plans.

“Incarcerated people, even prior to the pandemic are an incredibly vulnerable population. They’re shutoff from public view, and the amount of concern that we’ve heard from family members on the outside about their loved ones over the course of this last year has been enormous,” she said. “I think being able to see your loved one in person and to see that they’re ok—you can’t put words to it.”

Also reopening are state correctional institutions in Waymart (May 27), Muncy (May 30), Cambridge Springs (May 31), and the Quehanna Boot Camp (June 3).