In-Person Prison Visits Return, But Strict Rules Leave Children Out

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When the Kentucky government announced they would resume in-person visitation at state prison facilities by June 20, Stefanie Potter and her 5-year-old daughter were overwhelmed at the thought of seeing their husband and father for the first time since the pandemic started. 

“I screamed because I’ve been waiting for that moment,” Potter said. “And [my daughter] comes in and I’m all misty eyed and stuff and she’s like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I was like, ‘We can go see Dad!’ And she was just so happy.”

But like many Kentucky families with incarcerated loved ones, the 28-year-old mother of two quickly realized that visitation would come with strict regulations and an extremely limited schedule. When Gov. Andy Beshear announced that in-person visitation would resume at all 14 Kentucky prisons, he said they would still be taking precautions.

“Remember, this is a setting where if there is a COVID outbreak we have seen that it can be devastating, how quickly it can be spread,” the governor said.

What he didn’t say: no children will be allowed.

In-person visits at state prisons will be non-contact only, and must be scheduled ahead of time. Each inmate is only allowed two guests per visit. All guests must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — and they have to be 18 or older, according to the state’s new visitation policy, even though children 12 and older are eligible for vaccination. 

That means Potter’s husband can’t reconnect with his daughter or meet his 1-year-old son for the first time.

“I had to break that to [my daughter] and that was really hard because she was so eager to go,” Potter said. “Now she’s mad at me because I can go and she can’t.”

This is especially significant considering that as of 2018, Kentucky had the third-highest rate in the nation of children who have experienced the incarceration of a parent. It was estimated at the time that three out of every five people in state prisons had children.

“I feel bad for my husband,” Potter said. “He wants nothing more than to be involved with his kids and it is taking a really big toll on his mental health.”

Families feel misled

On June 11, Beshear announced that after more than 15 months of pandemic related restrictions, Kentucky was fully reopened. But for families of incarcerated individuals, the struggle continues. 

Marcus Jackson, organizing coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky’s Smart Justice campaign, says the Kentucky Department of Corrections needs to do more.

“The state is opening back up. All of these businesses, restaurants and other walks of life have adapted to this new norm. It’s been proven safe,” he said. “So how is it that the Department of Corrections is the only entity in Kentucky that can’t manage to get this right?”

COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported at every state facility, resulting in over 9,000 total cases and 53 deaths. Even so, people incarcerated in state prison were prioritized late when it came to vaccinations and only started to receive first doses in April. As of June 10, a state spokesperson said about 78% of state prisoners were fully vaccinated. Staff are not required to be vaccinated.

“Our stringent measures are in place to do everything in our power to lessen the risk of another outbreak,” spokesperson Lisa Lamb said in an emailed statement. “Our goal is to return to normal visitation operations as quickly as possible.”

While many families agree some level of precautions are warranted, they’re concerned that the state is making the visitation process too hard and prolonging the extreme isolation that incarcerated individuals have faced since the pandemic started.

“Why do I have to provide proof that I was vaccinated and then still sit behind glass, not touch, hug, hold his hand or anything?” Potter asked. 

Jackson said one of the most crucial elements in the rehabilitation process and the ability of an inmate to successfully return to the community is family connection.

“A lot of people on the inside live for those visits. A lot of their behaviors are reflective of those visits,” Jackson said. “Human beings need social interaction.”

Obstacles to scheduling visits

Along with vaccination requirements, mask mandates, social distancing, age limits and no-contact rules, most state prisons are offering just two visitation days a week and are limiting each visit to one or two hours, depending on the facility. The lack of availability is causing families to have to compete for time slots.

Potter has been trying for two weeks to schedule a visit. She requested a visit for June 26, but with just a week left, she said she still hasn’t heard anything from the facility.

“They won’t answer the phone when I call. It’ll ring two times and go to voicemail and the visit is literally next weekend,” she said. “I have two kids. I need to know what’s going on because I have to make arrangements.”

Jackson of the ACLU pointed out that many families also have to take full days off of work in order to visit their incarcerated loved ones because the visitation hours are so limited. 

“For anyone in the situation that has a loved one that is incarcerated, especially a spouse, you’ve already lost one income out of the home,” he said. “You can’t be missing days of work. And it just further puts the family in financial danger. Most of us are one paycheck away from really, really falling deep into poverty. I mean becoming homeless. People can’t live like that and I feel like the Department of Corrections needs to do more.”

As the rest of the state opens its doors, Potter said she is frustrated that incarcerated Kentuckians and their families continue to face these hurdles and wants for her kids to be able to see their dad.

“They don’t look at people that are incarcerated as people. They see them as numbers,” she said. “They have families. They have people who care about them out here.”

Contact Jasmine Demers at jdemers@kycir.org.