ALBANY — The stoppage of family visitations to state prison inmates due to the threat posed by coronavirus has had a harsh toll on thousands of families across New York, says Donna Robinson of Buffalo.
"I have a problem with the fact they stopped the visits," said Robinson, who has not seen her daughter, Al-Shariyfa Robinson, at maximum-security Bedford Hills prison just north of New York City since late February. "Why can't they just resume them now with improvements?'
According to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, plans are in place to allow visitors to return to prisons once all regions of the state enter Phase 3 of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's reopening criteria "at the earliest."
The New York City region, which has been the slowest to advance in the reopening phases, is slated to reach Phase 3 Monday, while nearly all upstate regions have already hit the fourth and final stage.
When the visitations resume, the state agency said, there will be many new protocols in place to address the threat posed by the virus.
Donna Robinson has assisted numerous family members of inmates in her role as a regional coordinator for the advocacy group Release Aging People in Prison Campaign. Now 64, she noted she has significant health issues and hopes she remains alive long enough to see her daughter once more.
The trip from Buffalo to Bedford Hills, via public transportation that includes a Metro North train from Manhattan to the town where the prison is located, is nearly 400 miles, she said.
"I have a lot of comorbidities that could jeopardize my life if things aren't up to par when visitation does resume," she said.
Her daughter is serving a sentence of 15-years to life in connection with an arson that claimed the lives of two men at a Buffalo boarding house in 2015.
Prison visiting rooms are being re-configured to reduce the capacity by half to allow for social distancing, according to corrections agency spokeswoman Rachel Connors.
All visitors, inmates and staff will be required to wear masks during the processing of visitors and during the visits. Prisons with outdoor visiting areas will utilize those spaces if weather permits, she said.
Visitors will also have their temperatures checked and they must arrive with a mask. And until further notice, no physical contact between visitors and the incarcerated individuals will be allowed.
The new protocols will also require the visitors to pre-register and get a confirmation that the visit has been scheduled. Child areas will be off-limits when visits resume, though that restriction will be evaluated after 30 days.
The state's limitations and restrictions even before the pandemic have forced families to make difficult choices, Robinson said. She noted her daughter is the mother of four children and the grandmother of two other youngsters. But only one child can accompany her on the visit, she said.
The state agency also indicates that its Family Reunion Program — in which relatives can mingle with inmates in home-like settings — will remain closed for now, though that move will also be re-evaluated, according to the prison agency.
"While we understand the importance of family and visitation, we need to ensure that we continue to protect the staff and incarcerated population within our facilities," Connors said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org