Where Corrections Meets Connections

Illustration by Carolina Moscoso

Incarcerated people are more than the charges brought against them, or the sentences they receive: They are children, spouses, partners, siblings, and parents. An estimated five million children, or one in 14 nationwide, have had a parent who was incarcerated at some point in their lives; roughly 1.7 million have a parent who is incarcerated at any given moment. These “invisible victims” are more likely to suffer health and behavioral problems, experience homelessness, and struggle in school. Going without a parent can be devastating. At a societal level, the phenomenon of mass incarceration — the imprisonment of a generation of Black fathers — has deepened racial inequality among children as a whole. Meanwhile, regular contact with loved ones can make a tremendous difference in the course of the life of a person who’s incarcerated as well. People who have visitors while they are incarcerated are less likely to return to jail and more likely to find employment upon release. But when the system of incarceration works hard to separate “offenders” from society, maintaining those essential connections means navigating complicated transportation networks, strict rules, and confusing processes that can make being a family member of someone who’s incarcerated almost as traumatic as being incarcerated yourself.

Qawaisa Kelley is the mother of four-year-old twin daughters, whose father has been held in jail on Rikers for two years without being sentenced. Below, Qawaisa tells UO how she and her family have navigated the distance incarceration creates. Like most people who would try to visit one of the roughly 9,000 people who are held in Rikers on any given day, Qawaisa must rely on delay-plagued public transit or expensive cab rides in order to reach the jail in time; if she’s a minute late, she’ll be turned away. Once there, Qawaisa and her daughters are greeted with a series of rigid, intimidating searches, and strict requirements and prohibitions: They may not talk to anyone besides the person they’ve come to visit; they may not wear clothing deemed too revealing or too excessive (which the Department of Correction (DOC) says can be used to smuggle contraband); they may not bring phones, food, or toys to play with. In the visiting room itself, sitting on one side of a long table, a plexiglass barrier divides Qawaisa and her daughters from their father. Though they are technically allowed to touch, it’s difficult and subject to the discretion of the guards.

The rigid control corrections administrators exert over family visits isn’t supported by evidence: According to a report by the New York City Department of Investigation, the majority of contraband in city jails found its way in not through visits but via DOC staff. In fact, research shows that visiting might even make jails and prisons safer, as incarcerated people are less likely to break the rules if they have contact with the outside world than if they are isolated. To the city’s credit, some efforts to make visiting more accessible are underway. DOC buses from Harlem and Downtown Brooklyn to Rikers have been running since April, and jail administrators have undertaken to improve signage and informational publications for visitors, as well as installing visitor greeters to help guide families through the process.

Things are even more difficult for the families of those convicted of felonies. For instance, if a mother from New York City is sentenced to a medium security prison upstate, the two potential outcomes are radically different. Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills is far away enough to make visits hard on young children, but Albion Correctional Facility, near the shores of Lake Ontario, a 375-mile, six-hour drive from New York City, might as well be in another country. The Osborne Association, a nonprofit group that advocates for and serves incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people and their families, is currently lobbying the state to take family connections into account when assigning prisoners to facilities, but if anything, the state government under Governor Andrew Cuomo has been trending away from valuing visits, cutting weekday visiting hours in medium security prisons in 2017 and eliminating state-run buses to correctional facilities in 2011. Families increasingly depend on the support of organizations like the Osborne Association or on an opaque and expensive network of privately run buses and vans — or they cease visiting in person at all. Visits to prisons have declined by the thousands since New York’s state-run buses were eliminated.

With the recent expansion of video visiting programs, keeping connected no longer has to mean a multi-hour journey. TeleVisits  can be an essential supplement to in-person visits — for Qawaisa and her daughters, a program run by the Brooklyn Public Library provides a friendlier space, closer to home, with fewer hoops to jump through on the way. Once or twice a week, they visit for an hour at their local branch library, one of 22 city-wide that provides the service — a room with toys and books for the kids, a greeter (usually someone who has used the service before themselves), and a secure video free-of-charge coordinated by the library and administered by the Office of Court Administration. The Osborne Association has also fought to make TeleVisits possible from far-off prisons like Albion. But the popularity of this tech fix may have unforeseen consequences. With private companies throughout the country moving in on the video-visiting market, charging exorbitant fees from users (in exchange for a hefty commission paid to corrections departments), and even sometimes demanding an end to in-person visits, much is at risk. If corrections administrators continue to see restricting visits as an easy way to tighten their belts, all of the power of family connection could be lost — and the distance and isolation of incarceration could become even more dangerous.

My daughters’ father has been in Rikers Island two years. He hasn’t been sentenced yet. He’s still waiting for trial. I try to take them as often as possible out there to see him. They know who he is, they know he’s their father, they ask him to come to the house. I tell them, he’s away for a little while, and he’ll be coming soon to visit you guys and to look after you and take you to school. And if they ask him he tells them the same thing, so our stories are the same. He tells them he’ll be home soon to put them to bed, to watch TV and do stuff like that with them.

They went to see him on Mothers’ Day. That day is always crowded. They enjoyed the visit. He definitely enjoyed the visit. He wants it more often because he wants to still be in his kids’ life even though he’s in jail.

There are a lot of loved ones and females like myself in the same predicament, going to see their kids’ father or their husband. I go for the support because they want to see someone coming in to see them. I would go at least twice a week when I have the time, to make him feel like he still has someone.

You’re happy to see them but then you leave, and then just thinking about the person being away for that long is just really sad.

Of course, if it weren’t for me coming to see a loved one I wouldn’t be there, because you feel like you’re being watched all the time. And then all of the cops and guards around, some of them treat you like you’re the inmate. It’s just not a place you want to go unless you have to go there. You have to really want to support someone. It’s a lot of time and a lot of rules and regulations you have to follow.

Some people don’t miss one visit, because maybe they’re not working or they have more time than other people. The people that live in Queens, and have someone there, they’re way closer, they live half an hour away, so it’s way easier.

I’m all the way on the opposite side. It’s a long ride on the train if you’re going all the way from Coney Island. You take the F all the way to Queens Boulevard. It’s a whole hour and maybe twenty minutes and then you still have to wait for a bus to take you all the way to Rikers Island. The bus is like a 30-minute ride. So basically it’s two hours there and two hours back, so that’s nearly a whole four hours to just do that. And four hours at the jail is eight hours. A job.

I would go by myself on the weekdays, but with the kids it’s only the weekends. You have to get there by two in order to actually get the visit. There are times when the bus is running late, and if you get on that last bus and it gets there at 2:01, 2:02, there’s staff there that’s putting the gates so no one can come in. That’s happened to me.

I’ve seen it before when the bus has connected with the people over there and they let us go through. The bus took forty minutes, they know the bus isn’t supposed to take 40, especially if it’s the last visit, because they’re supposed to send at least two or three in that forty minutes, so they would call and let them know that this bus has about 60 people on it.

You have to wait. It’s always a period. You have to get searched, processed, you have to wait for the bus to come and get you and take you to the other side. Then when you get to the other side you’ve gotta get searched again and put your stuff in the locker, and then wait in the waiting room for them to actually bring the inmate down.

You get sniffed by a dog first, and then you go through another search. And once you get through the lockers and leave your phone and stuff, you go through another search. It doesn’t make sense for you to bring too much stuff because you have to put it in a locker anyways and they’ll say stuff you have to take off, so it’s better to wear sweatpants. You have to take off your sneakers, your socks. So yeah, the process is a bit invasive. If I didn’t have to go through it I definitely wouldn’t.

Some of them are friendly. I can tell you that. Some of them are not so friendly. They’re rude if you ask a question, like to see if your inmate is coming down. I’ve seen them make girls put on longer shirts because they’re offended by how they look but then they’ll let another girl wear the same spandex tights. They pick and choose how they treat people.

You can’t bring anything for the inmates. You just have to bring yourself. The kids have to put everything in the locker. They have to drink and eat their food before they go in and they have to wait to see him, and then they have to sit there for an hour. And at two and three they don’t want to sit there quietly, they want to play and run around and stuff. When they were younger, they would cry, get bored during all the visits.

They let the kids play with their father and stuff, and they let them sit on his lap, but the kids, they want to be running around. They don’t know that they’re restricted to one area so they want to run up and down. Now it’s designed differently, with long tables, but before they used to be round tables and just two chairs so they would be running all around. But now it’s just a bench, and they have to sit down on one side or the other.

The whole process is probably like four or five hours, I’d say. If I get there at maybe one o’clock I’ll be getting off the visit probably like by 4pm, and then I start to wait for the bus to take me to the train station, so I’ll get on the train at 5pm, and then I’ll get here around 7pm. So it’s a whole-day process on a weekend.

If I’m running late or if I have the kids and I don’t want to go on the train, I’ll just take a cab there and take the train back. Or I’ll take the train there and take a cab back because they’re so tired from the visit. It’s been 50, 55 dollars. It’s a waste of money but I’ll just take a cab so I can go out, get there on time, then take the train back.

Only because it’s physical contact, that’s the only reason why I would take the whole ride and go through all of that. You can actually touch and hug.

But I like the FaceTime visit, it’s convenient. When there was just the in-person visits, I couldn’t make it very often, it was once a week or every other week. So the TeleVisit is more convenient, because I just have to go a few blocks down to do the visit. It’s a big room and there’s a lot of space for the kids. They play with the toys and draw pictures to show him so they’re happy when they go to the library to see him. The space is good.

I try to take them twice a week, but it’s usually once a week. Sometimes I can’t get two visits at that library, I guess it’s over capacity. They always tell me that it’s overcrowded and I would have to go to another library. Which is not so bad but I would just have to travel again. So my visits are usually every Tuesday at 6pm because I pick the kids up at 5pm. Anything that’s closer than Rikers is convenient for me. He calls about three times a day, as long as he has money on his account and usually he has money because his family is supportive. They always keep money on his account and commissary. Some people don’t have supportive families. He’s told me plenty of times that he’s given calls to people, his friends in there, because they don’t have money. Or he’s given them shirts and stuff that they needed, food, because they have no one to come help them. Everybody does not have the support that he does. Some people don’t even have visits at all. I think that would be so discouraging, not to have any visits or any contact with anyone from the outside.

It’s been two years. Now I’m used to the situation so I already know what to expect when I leave the visit. Not to leave as sad. The first few months it was way more depressing, to not know how long I would have to do it for. And this is my first time actually experiencing the jail, because I haven’t been to jail to see anyone else. I wouldn’t want to go through it again.

Qawaisa Kelley lives in Coney Island.

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