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California prisons suspend visiting indefinitely, over coronavirus scares

Conjugal visits still allowed

March 12, 2020

SACRAMENTO — The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has suspended prison visiting “until further notice” across the state over fears about COVID-19, the agency announced Wednesday.

Prison visits statewide are canceled “until further notice,” including non-contact visits, where people speak to one another through a window, according to CDCR. The lone exception is multi-day conjugal visits, which are to be held as scheduled.

“CDCR values visitation as an essential part of rehabilitation, but at this time the Department must make difficult decisions in order to protect the health and wellness of all who live in, work in, and visit state prisons,” a CDCR news release says.

Visits and phone time are widely accepted as crucial to inmate rehabilitation and mental health. They are normally held on weekends and require visitors to congregate in a small room as they’re screened for contraband one-by-one. Visitors and inmates are allowed to hug and kiss at the beginning and end of visits, but otherwise, physical contact beyond holding hands is restricted.

“It’s not surprising but it does not solve the problem of overcrowding and the fact that there are elderly and vulnerable people at risk of death in prison,” said Kate Chatfield, an adjunct law professor at the University of San Francisco and senior adviser for legislation and policy at the Justice Collaborative.

As of March 4, the statewide prison population was 123,062 spread over 33 facilities, according to CDCR statistics.

No positive tests anywhere in the prison system have been announced, though some facilities — like Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad — have undergone recent quarantines over H1N1 cases.

It is unclear whether the suspension of visits extends to legal visits from attorneys as well. A spokeswoman for CDCR did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on that issue.