Captives Behind Plexiglass: How COVID Destroyed Prison Visits

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“Parlour.” Painting by Julio Pomar (1926-2018) of Aljube Prison, Lisbon via Flickr

Every Saturday morning, private buses drop off groups of people at prisons across New York State.

Women and children, mostly, leave the city in the dead hours of night and travel on these buses for six hours or longer only to wait sometimes for three or more hours to get inside the facility to see their loved ones.

The waiting area usually consists of a dreary small room or trailer encircled with uncomfortable plastic chairs where a few officers approve who will enter the facility.

Often, women are turned away for outfits deemed “too tight” and forced to change.

Most of the time, the outfits they wear are perfectly appropriate. Yet, in these instances, the need to display such power destroys the ability to extend any fairness. Those who have been visiting for a long time come prepared, stashing extra shirts and pants in the duffel bags they shove into lockers that line the back wall.

However, some women do not know yet to plan ahead and must find a nearby store to buy new clothes they hope the officers will find acceptable. Once they pass this “test,” they then sit with the others until they hear their number called, very similar to the dreadful wait at the DMV.

When they are finally called inside, they have to fill out a form, have their picture taken, and walk through a metal detector, another opportunity when they can get turned away. The experienced visitors will wear a bra without underwire and pass through the metal detector with ease. Others will have to enter a changing room, remove their bra, and walk through again.

If the metal detector remains silent, they can then head over to the visiting room.

In a room that resembles a school cafeteria, a few officers sit behind a desk and monitor the interactions. “Stop kissing, stop holding hands, stop hugging” are all common commands during a contact visit that can range anywhere from one hour to six, depending on the facility.

In the case of a no-contact visit, a metal gated partition like a fence will separate visitors from their loved ones.

Despite the strict rules, rigid officers, and long commute, most women find all of these hassles worth the trouble in order to sit face-to-face with their loved ones, to touch them, to share vending machine snacks, to play board games or cards together, and to briefly hug and kiss in the beginning and end of the visit.

These few hours of PG-13 intimacy breathe life and love into relationships that otherwise exist through email, video, or the phone.

However, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused prison visiting rooms across the country to shut down, creating a stressful disconnect that would last for the next 14 months, and in some states, even longer.

In an interview with The Crime Report, Cecilia Conley, CEO of the social media enterprise Designed Conviction and wife of an inmate serving a life sentence in Washington State lamented that the last time she saw her husband in-person was on March 6, 2020.

In better days. Cecilia Conley and her husband Taylor.

Although Washington has begun to allow in-person visits, they are heavily restricted. Visitors and their incarcerated loved ones must sit behind a plexiglass partition to prevent them from kissing, hugging, and even holding hands. The visits must also be scheduled and approved in advance and only last for one hour.

“They opened visitation, but they have a plexiglass, and you have to be seated in front of them with a mask,” Conley explains. “So, for me, if you go there and they cannot even touch you, that’s torture for me; so we prefer to just stick with the video visits because at least we can be wearing no mask, and it will be almost the same thing.

“They’re very strict there, so we don’t like that.”

While Washington allowed video visits prior to the pandemic, New York has yet to have that option, which forced incarcerated people and their loved ones to rely on only letters, emails, and phone calls to stay connected.

Donna Sorge shared the experience she endured with her significant other while he was incarcerated in Green Correctional Facility, located in Coxsackie, N.Y.

“We were on the phone as much as possible and we would email a bunch of times during the day, so it wasn’t like we felt so out of connect, but a lot of people don’t have that luxury,” she said in an interview.

“They don’t email that much, or the guys don’t get on the kiosk that much, or they don’t get the phones as much. In some places like Attica, they might get a 15-minute phone call every other day.”

Prior to the pandemic, Sorge would visit her loved one every weekend; but for most of 2020, she had to rely on these other forms of communication, which she explains took a toll on her relationship.

“It’s a huge impact on us because one of the main ways we communicate is actually seeing them,” she continued. “I mean, we can talk on the phone, we can write, and email, but it’s not the same as going there and spending time with them.”

In Conley’s case, prior to the pandemic, not only would she get to see her husband face-to-face in the facility’s visiting room; but she was allowed to have overnight family visits with him.

“Last year, before the pandemic, I got to spend the night with him,” Conley recalled.

“He would cook for me, we would sleep together, take a shower, watch TV, like in privacy, which was really nice…Now they canceled it, which is stupid.”

Conley went on to express her frustration, stating, “I wish DOC would’ve managed this better. There’s enough science and tools that they could have used to allow us to see our loved ones earlier.”

She added: “I mean, my husband and I are fully vaccinated, and I’m sure there are a lot of guards that are not even vaccinated, so for me, it’s safer to go there than the guards. So, I don’t understand why I cannot see him.”

In New York, overnight family visits are also allowed―but were canceled during the pandemic.

Donna Sorge

However, since Sorge and her partner are not married, they never had the option to participate in these kinds of visits.

Instead, they would rely on spending time with each other in the visiting room. When facilities closed their doors to outsiders, she explained, “just not being able to see him is stressful because I can have better conversations and get more information from him when I see him in person as opposed to being on the phone.”

Since April 2021, New York has reopened their visiting rooms, but there are still many restrictions.

Sorge recalls her experience, stating, “We obviously weren’t able to kiss. We had to wear masks the whole time unless we were eating or drinking, and they do enforce it…we just made sure we were eating and drinking something, so we didn’t have to have the masks on the whole time.”

While Washington has been moving in the direction of allowing contact visits sometime this summer, Conley has chosen to continue to rely on video visits with her husband as frequently as possible, despite the many drawbacks.

Conley describes it this way:

Conley describes, “We utilize

visits more but there are some times that either the video visit does not work or there would be low quality. As soon as the pandemic started [they were also] more strict with them. So, it really is stressful.”

However, she remains hopeful that she will see her husband in person soon.

“Of course, I want to see him. I want to share a bag of chips and spend the night with him, and I know it’s gonna happen. The state’s opening today, so I hope that by next month, hopefully, I can go see him, so I’m very excited about that.”

Sorge also maintains a sense of optimism despite the heightened degree of separation from her loved one the pandemic caused.

“It’s either going to do one of two things. It’s either going to make you stronger or it’s going to make it harder.”

In her case, her relationship ended up stronger since she was able to welcome her significant other home only a few weeks ago after standing by his side for the last 17 years.

While Sorge has been reunited with her loved one and now has a new start, many people do not share that reality, and are still deeply impacted by the aftermath of the pandemic that continues to alter facility rules.

One concern many people have is the possibility of facilities phasing out in-person visits all together. With the over-use of video visits during this past year many fear that this will become the only option to see their loved ones.

“I fear that a lot. And I fear that now they want to keep that plexiglass,” Conley said. “Of course, it scares me…I think the only reason why it hasn’t been enforced is because the families are fighting for that not to happen, but of course, that sometimes makes me stay up at night because I don’t know what I would do.

“My relationship would be 100 percent impacted by that.”

Although prison staff and law enforcement officials often claim video visits prevent the spread of contraband within the facility and are easier to monitor, that cannot be further from the truth. According to a study conducted by Prison Policy Initiative in 2018, nearly all reported cases involved jail workers, rather than visitors.

Specifically, “20 jail workers in 12 jails were arrested, indicted, or convicted of smuggling (or planning to smuggle) goods into their cell blocks,” and most of the 12 jails involved had recently banned in-person visits and replaced them with video calls.

However, worst of all, relying only on video visits rob people of the opportunity to experience a true physical connection that cannot be replicated through a screen.

“They’re human and they need human contact,” Conley emphasized.

When incarcerated people have in-person interactions with their loved ones, even briefly, they are provided with a sense of normalcy and a renewal of hope that would be lost otherwise. Such a loss would only negatively impact their rehabilitation process.

Despite the unnecessary cruelty that goes along with banning in-person visits, many jails across the United States have executed this change. According to a 2015 study from the Prison Policy Initiative, 13 percent of local jails – about 500 in 43 states – have implemented video calling, with 74 percent also prohibiting in-person visitation.

Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Florida even tries to make video calls sound more appealing than having the opportunity to hug and kiss loved ones by exclaiming on their website:

Avoid long lines, scheduling conflicts, and provide a better environment for children to interact with a family member. Video visitation is an easier way to spend time with a loved one in custody at one of our jails. 

However, when it comes to a child hugging his or her mother, a wife kissing her husband, or a mother holding the hand of her son, do the prison officials mandating these rules truly believe long lines or scheduling conflicts matter? In fact, the emotional toll of physically separating loved ones for indefinite periods of time cancels out any convenience video visits may offer.

While the fear of facilities phasing out in-person visits for good will always linger in the background due to advancements in technology, as of now, many prisons have begun to open their doors to outsiders.

This in turn has brought new concerns regarding longer lines and wait times to enter once restrictions are completely lifted.

maria dilorenzo

Maria DiLorenzo

Conley expressed her mixed emotions of excitement and worry succinctly.

“There’s going to be a lot of people making a line to go see their loved ones because we haven’t gone in for a long time. But other than that, when I’m there, I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it. It’s going to be nice.”

Maria DiLorenzo, based in Brooklyn, NY, has written for various publications, including the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Flea, Real Crime, and She is currently working on a true crime novel about the life and crimes of Maksim Gelman, and recently started a blog called Beyond the Crime, which shares stories of those incarcerated for murder to gain a deeper understanding of criminal behavior and the criminal justice system. 

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