COVID-19 and Prison Policies Related to Communication With Family Members

COVID-19 and Prison Policies Related to Communication With Family Members

The importance of including those who are directly affected in the decision-making process of prison policies related to visitors during COVID-19.

When considering policies about visits and other forms of contact between incarcerated individuals and their loved ones, prison and jail administrators should include those who are directly affected in the decision-making process as stakeholders in the process. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2021, Vol. 27, No. 2, 231-241

COVID-19 and Prison Policies Related to Communication With Family Members

Authors

Danielle H. Dallaire, Department of Psychological Sciences, The College of William and Mary
Rebecca J. Shlafer, Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota
Lorie S. Goshin, Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing, Hunter College, City University of New York
Allison Hollihan, The Osborne Association, New York, New York, United States
Julie Poehlmann-Tynan, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison
J. Mark Eddy, College of Education, University of Texas at Austin
Ann Adalist-Estrin, National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, Rutgers University–Camden

Abstract

To limit the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus, departments of corrections (DOCs) in all 50 states suspended in-person visits to state prisons between March 7 and March 19, 2020. This article describes changes to policies related to the contact incarcerated individuals could have with family members and others since the pandemic began. We also examine the clarity of the information presented to the public regarding COVID-19 testing and outbreaks in state prisons. The results show that DOCs quickly made free phone calls available to incarcerated individuals, although for how long this policy remained in place is unclear. The capacity for video visits during the pandemic was notably less; only 25 state DOCs had video visits in place before March 2020, and 16 of those reported adding free video visits with family members during the pandemic. A smaller proportion of states reported offering free email access (n = 15) and free postage/stamps (n = 10). Analysis of state DOCs’ webpages showed variability in the range of information available about testing and outbreaks. The clarity of the information presented on DOCs’ websites was associated with the total number of policy changes DOCs made related to other forms of contact with family members. States that made more policy changes had more accessible and informative data related to COVID-19 testing and prevalence on their webpages. These results have important implications for policy considerations related to incarcerated people’s contact with their families as the pandemic continues and are discussed in light of pending legislation in the U.S. Senate.

Keywords

COVID-19, incarceration, correctional policy, visiting, communication

Summary of the Research

“Factors such as a lack of access to personal protective equipment, inability to social distance, and greater concentrations of chronic illness within the confined population combine to create an increased risk for the rapid spread of infectious disease within custody facilities. Because a wide variety of individuals living in the broader community interact with the incarcerated population (e.g., family members, friends, contractors, lawyers, correctional officers), virus transmission within a correctional facility also places the larger community at risk. Preventing exposure of the incarcerated population to infection in the first place is thus of utmost public health importance. At the time of this writing (September 21, 2020), the United States remains in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and leads the world in the number of identified cases and deaths. As the pandemic engulfed the United States in the spring of 2020, the majority of jurisdictions took steps to limit exposure to and spread of the disease within their correctional facilities. One of the most common first steps was the suspension of in-person visits, followed by other changes to contact policies. This article examines changes to visit and contact policies made by state departments of corrections (DOCs) in response to the pandemic, the public availability of information about COVID-19 within facilities, and the potential implications of both for future policies and practices related to communication between incarcerated men and women and their family members” (p. 231-232).

“The current study examined states’ decisions to suspend visiting and implement other policies intended to maintain incarcerated people’s contact with their loved ones, including offering free phone calls, video visits, email, and postage/stamps, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between March 7 and March 19, 2020, state prisons in all 50 U.S. states suspended in-person visits in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consistent with recommendations from the CDC, most states quickly implemented policies that provided free phone calls following the suspension of in-person visits. Although states’ capacities for video visits during the pandemic were notably less, most states with that capability reported adding free video visits following the suspension of in-person visits during the pandemic. A smaller proportion of states reported implementing policies that provided free email and postage stamps following the suspension of in-person visits” (p. 235).

“The CDC also recommends strong communication with all stakeholders during the pandemic, including communicating any changes regarding visiting and providing information about the rates of outbreak and testing in the facilities. As such, we were interested in the clarity of information about COVID-19 available on each state’s DOC website and whether the clarity of this information was related to policy changes intended to support communication between incarcerated people and their families during COVID-19. Analysis of the state DOC websites showed that a range of information about testing and outbreaks was available. Few websites were rated as very clear. The clarity of the information on the site was associated with the number of policies states implemented around other forms of contact, suggesting that these states may have been more closely following recommendations from the CDC” (p. 235-237).

Translating Research into Practice

“The Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act (H.R. 6389) passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 15, 2020, as part of the HEROES Act and awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate. This bill would protect incarcerated individuals and their families from unjust and excessive charges related to telephone, video conferencing, and email services. It would also ban correction and detention systems from receiving commissions from communications providers. Profits are reaped at the expense of the family members of the incarcerated, who are disproportionately of low socioeconomic status and families of color, the very families who are disproportionately affected by the negative health and economic consequences of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, approximately 65% of families with an incarcerated loved one struggled to meet basic household needs, in part because of the exorbitant fees related to communicating with an incarcerated family member. With in-person visiting largely suspended, making other forms of communication accessible by reducing or eliminating the rates and fees associated with communications is critically important. Our results would suggest that it is not only possible to reduce or eliminate the cost of phone and video communication for incarcerated individuals and their families but that it is also necessary and humane to do so given the ongoing pandemic” (p. 239).

“Although the suspension of in-person visiting was initially implemented to reduce the spread of infection, administrators must recognize that the benefits associated with visiting are essential and resume in-person visits when it is safe to do so. Thoughtful and safe resumption of in-person visiting is critical, as are ongoing efforts to increase and sustain contact through other forms of communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones. When considering policies about visits and other forms of contact between incarcerated individuals and their loved ones, prison and jail administrators should include those who are directly affected in the decision-making process as stakeholders in the process. Further, partnering with community organizations that offer supportive visiting and parenting programs inside correctional facilities may be helpful in bridging this collaboration between the correctional administrators, incarcerated people, and their families in an effort to gather input to most effectively—and equitably—support incarcerated people during this unprecedented time” (p. 239).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Our study is also limited by our focus on DOCs, which are generally responsible for the state’s prisons but not local jails. Jails typically hold people who are pretrial or serving short sentences. Jails have considerable turnover—with more than 10.6 million admissions to jails each year — adding additional challenges to COVID-19 mitigation. The visiting environment in jails is often quite different than that in prisons because most jails only offer noncontact visits, such as video visits or Plexiglas visiting. Given these key differences, it is important for future research to examine if and how jails’ contact policies have changed in response to COVID-19” (p. 239).

Additional Resources/Programs

https://concept.paloaltou.edu/course/COVID-19-and-Domestic-Violence?hsLang=en

https://www.prisonpolicy.org/virus/virusresponse.html

https://healthandjusticejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40352-021-00150-w

 

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