As of March 14, 2017, 50,476 people were incarcerated in New York state prisons. Similar to policing policies and practices across the country, incarceration disproportionately impacts communities of color, particularly African-American communities. Almost half (49 percent) of people in the state's prisons are Black; the other half are white (24.4 percent) and Latino (24 percent). Sixty percent are parents to living children, and the impact of parental incarceration, like incarceration itself, disproportionately affects families of color. African-American children are seven times more likely, and Latino children are twice as likely, to have a parent in prison as their white peers. Incarceration doesn't affect just children and parents—other family members, such as spouses, non-married partners, parents and siblings, also feel the brunt of their loved ones' absence. In-person visits allow families to maintain their relationships despite long periods of separation. But Cuomo's cuts mean that the 21,525 people in maximum-security prisons face the possibility of fewer—and shorter—visits.
"Have you ever had to call the chaplain?" Russ asked, her question laden with frustration from repeated experiences. That's the start of the standard prison procedure for a death in the family—a family member calls the prison chaplain to report the death and the funeral arrangements. The chaplain takes down the information, which prison administrators then verify, a process that may take a few days. Once they do, the prisoner is called into the chaplain's office, where he is told about the death and the date of the funeral. "That's the way it goes. There's no compassion, no sit-down counseling or services offered."When her husband's brother died, Russ still had to call the chaplain. But she took the following day off work and drove the three hours to the prison to tell her husband in person. "We're able to talk about it," she explained. "He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and to lean on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in his cell." The chaplain didn't call her husband into the office until two days after her visit.
Kids—they want to see their parents more. [These cuts] are just taking away time from our parents.
It's not just outside family members who will profoundly feel these cuts. Elizabeth Harris went to prison when her daughters were two and twelve. During her 17 years at Bedford Hills, the state's maximum-security prison, family members brought her daughters to visit at least twice a week, and sometimes even three to four times a week. During weekday visits, the visiting room was less crowded and less noisy. "I was able to spend quality time with them," she recounted. Harris didn't need to try to keep her toddler in her seat; instead, the mother and daughter could walk around the visiting room or outside to the play area.
He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and to lean on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in his cell.
Some people want to see their parents in person instead of seeing them on a television. They might express their feelings more in person.
State legislators seem to understand their concerns. The budget proposals from both houses restore the $2.6 million for daily visits at maximum-security prisons; the Assembly proposal also "includes new legislation to prohibit the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision from reducing visitation opportunities at maximum security prisons." Cuomo's office has not responded to Broadly's request for comment."This [reduced visiting] will be a hardship for a lot of people," said Britt. Harris, who has now been out of prison for four years, agrees. "Those visits were everything to me," she remembered. Looking at Cuomo's proposal to replace in-person visits with expanded video visiting, she asks, "How can you have a personal relationship with someone on a TV screen?"Illustration by Julia Kuo