Addressing the Crisis of Family Separation Here in New York28 February 2019
Assemblymembers Carmen De La Rosa and David Weprin are a member and the chair, respectively, of the New York Assembly Committee on Correction. In this Gotham Gazette op-ed, they write about the importance of supporting visiting for families members of people incarcerated in NY State prisons.
It is time to address the crisis of family separation. This time, it’s not about the humanitarian emergency on our nation’s southern border, but our own homegrown crisis that affects New York’s approximately 80,000 children with a parent in prison. Most of these children deeply miss and want to visit their mothers or fathers, yet distance is a barrier, and many of New York’s 54 prisons are not accessible by public transportation.
Time and again, constituents from across the state have asked us for help. Grandmothers like Mrs. Coleman who was unable to take her grandchildren in Brooklyn to see their mother when she was incarcerated near the Canadian border. She once drove through the night so as not to miss school and work, her grandchildren asleep in the back, and scarily, almost fell asleep at the wheel. Children like Jeremiah and Jonathan, who used to see their father monthly when he was an hour away by MetroNorth, but now have no affordable way to travel 10 hours to see him. And Brianna and Isaiah, from Buffalo, who have seen their mother only once since she was moved to Taconic Correctional Facility, almost 400 miles away.
There are four bills before the New York Senate and Assembly that would address these issues: the Visiting Bus, Proximity, Restoring 7 Day Visiting, and Codifying Visiting bills will improve children’s access to their parents, strengthen family connections, and promote the correctional and public safety goals of rehabilitation and successful reentry. Many prison officials—including former Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer—report that visiting improves the prison environment, promotes program participation and rehabilitation, and increases the likelihood of successful reentry.
The Visiting Bus bill restores free transportation for families visiting a New York State Prison. In 1973, in the aftermath of the Attica Uprising, New York State undertook a series of reforms that included these free visiting buses. The buses operated for 38 years until their funding was eliminated from the state budget in 2011.
Visiting buses are more cost-effective and less onerous on families if people need not travel great distances to visit a loved one. The Proximity bill will place parents in the prison as close to their children as possible if the parent, the child, and the child’s caregiver also agree, and only after the state corrections department’s existing assignment criteria of security, health, and programming needs are satisfied.
When prison visit rooms are open every day, families have more flexibility to visit as well as to visit two days in a row, making the most of their time and resources they spent to travel to the facility. Only maximum security prisons currently offer visiting every day. The Restore 7 Day Visits bill would remedy this. New York State has long been a national leader in offering in-person visiting. The Codifying Visiting bill ensures in-person, contact visits are a right throughout New York that cannot be replaced by video visiting.
Taken together, these bills strengthen a lifeline between parents and children who often grapple with their parent’s incarceration in isolation, fearing someone will find out and treat them differently as a result. Visiting lessens this isolation and stigma, maintains the parent-child relationship, and allows children to see others in the visiting room and realize they are not alone.
This is not simply a downstate issue. Today, 60% of incarcerated women and 50% of incarcerated men in state prisons come from areas outside of New York City. It affects all of us, and it is up to all of us to ensure that no family will have to choose between bringing a child to see his or her parent or putting groceries on the table.
Just as Mrs. Coleman and her grandchildren have asked us for help, we urge our colleagues in the Legislature and Governor’s office to pass these bills, fund the visiting buses, and strengthen this lifeline for thousands of children and families.