Bureau Of Prisons Announces Plans To Resume Social Visits By October
...with many new restrictions
Sep 2, 2020
By Walter Pavlo - Forbes
Federal prison visitation, when it resumes, is going to look a lot different than it did before COVID-19 halted the privilege on March 13, 2020. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) issued new guidance on when and how in-person social visits will resume in October ... maybe.
In a release dated August 31, the BOP modified its Phase 9 plan to direct wardens at each prison to develop procedures to reinstate social visiting, something that was suspended on March 13 when the agency realized that COVID-19 was much more serious than it had initially thought.
Since then, inmates have had no in-person visits but that might be about to change. However, like eating in restaurants and going to the store, visitation to prisons will look much different.
In the past, visitation rooms were usually packed with family, parents, children and friends, visiting inmates at federal facilities across the country (over 120 of them). A typical visitation room would have over 100 people sitting in an open room at tables, going to vending machines and children sitting on the floor with coloring books. Those crowded visitation rooms will be a relic of the past until the pandemic has passed. Capacity of visiting rooms will be cut as a result of the new rules on social distancing and the BOP staff needed to insure adherence to the those rules.
According to the BOP guidance on resuming visitation, there will be no contact between family and the inmate while a 6-foot distance must be kept at all times. So when a child, who has not seen his/her parent in months, comes to the visitation room there will not even be so much as a fist-bump.
The ability for family members who do visit will no doubt be limited. Many inmates, particularly those in minimum security camps, routinely had family visit them over Friday afternoons, Saturdays and Sundays. In an effort to give everyone a chance to visit and due to the curtailed capacity, multiple visits over a weekend will not be possible. Also the ability to receive visits from different family members or friends will be difficult in not impossible due to logistics of visiting. It is unclear how anyone will even arrange to visit the prison and whether there will be a signup process. In the past, visitors just line up for their turn to be let into the prison after filling out a form and some screening.
There will be no vending machine operations and tables and chairs will be cleaned as visitors leave the area. Those inmates who might be in quarantine or who have tested positive will not be eligible for any visitation ... which makes sense.
I asked Jack Donson, former case management specialist with the BOP and now an expert on policy matters of the agency, what he thought about the new procedures. Donson told me, “While I strongly support family contact, this seems like a logistical nightmare which will result in families being turned away after traveling long distances.”
I also spoke with Joe Rojas, the Council of Prisons Southeast Regional Vice President who works at Federal Correctional Institution Coleman, FL who was more direct, “This directive was not well thought out and dumps the problems on Wardens who have expressed their concerns to me.”
Rojas told me that many of the visiting facilities are open bay, large rooms with tables and chairs that were never meant to provide separation between inmates and visitors. “There is no plexiglass in these visiting rooms and I can see hundreds of family members trying to get into a prison and we just don’t have the capacity to screen them to get them inside.” Rojas said that staff are already stretched and this creates the real possibility of introducing the virus into prisons. “That this is supposed to be implemented in the next 30 days while there are so many other priorities is just ridiculous. It won’t happen because we cannot just snap our fingers and create this safe environment for visiting.”
Rojas told me that family visits are important for everyone, “I’m a teacher over the GED program here at Coleman and I can tell you that family visits are important, but the BOP could have implemented a video visiting solution years ago that would help us transition to in-person visits but that has not happened. There is no video visitation at most institutions because the BOP won’t spend the money.”
It is doubtful that older visitors or those who have underlying medical conditions would even risk visiting a prison. Family members might even have a fear of themselves being a carrier of COVID-19 and making the conditions worse for their loved one in prison. “It’s not fair to the families,” Rojas said, “to make them feel like they should take that risk to visit. It will just add to the pressure these families are already under.”