Among the challenges presented with COVID-19 and prison facilities, in-person visitation has been indefinitely suspended for family members and friends. For parents who are currently incarcerated, these regulations are particularly painful. While virtual visitation is better than nothing, parents agree that it does not come close to replacing in-person visitation.
Our guests are:
- Al Cormier, chief of operations at the Vermont Department of Corrections
- Bobbi, incarcerated mother at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility
Editor's note: Bobbi spoke to Vermont Edition on the condition that we only use her first name to protect her and her children's confidentiality.
Broadcast live on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 at 12 p.m. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
VPR’s Jane Lindholm spoke with Bobbi, a mother who is currently incarcerated at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. We also heard from some of our listeners who shared their thoughts and experiences with parenting behind bars. The conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to the full episode, here.
Jane Lindholm: Joining us today is Bobbi, who normally lives in Washington County. She's currently in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Bobbi, you have two kids, right?
Bobbi: I do.
And they are teenagers?
Yes, 13 and 17.
How are you staying in touch with them?
Mainly phone calls, as much as I can; video calls once a week. Because there's no visitation in-person.
How hard is that for you?
It's really hard, not being able to hug my kids. I can't even explain how hard that is, honestly. It's one thing to have a video visit, that's great. But it's a totally different thing to be able to hug your kids.
I understand when you talk to your kids, you have a phrase that you say to each other, would you share it with us?
I always tell my kids, “I miss your little face.”
That must be really challenging not to be able to hug your daughter and not be able to see her. I mean, you can see facial expressions over video chats, but it's just not the same.
Yeah, it's absolutely not the same. There really is no comparison, honestly.
What are your kids telling you about how they're coping with not being able to see you?
Honestly, they're tough little guys. They don't really like to talk much about feelings. If the feelings are there or not, they don't want to talk about any of that.
They completely change the subject when I try to bring it up. You can tell, though, that it's hard on them.
How long have you been in prison, as of right now?
I've only been here since June, this time, but long enough to feel the effects.
So you came in in the middle of the pandemic. It sounds like you've been incarcerated before. Does this time feel different to you?
Because of the pandemic restrictions or otherwise?
No, it's definitely the pandemic. There's so much different stuff going on. I mean, there's nothing the same, literally.
How are you coping?
Honestly, I'm crocheting all the time and just trying to keep myself busy. So I'm not thinking about, you know, any of that really.
Did you say crocheting? What are you crocheting?
Everything. Blankets, hats, all types of stuff.
What is the difference in terms of being able to do a private video visit, like the kind that Jess is talking about with Kids-A-Part, versus the video kiosks in public areas of the unit?
I personally have never used the video kiosks because I'm not comfortable with having a video visit in the unit. There's just all sorts of people walking around and it's just a whole different space. So I prefer to do it through Jess Kell in a comfortable space, where not only I’m comfortable, but my daughter and my kids are also comfortable with it.
You said your kids are tough little kids, Bobbi, but do you miss the ability to put your arm around them?
Oh, yeah. There's not enough words. I miss that more than anything.
Bobbi, what do you want to do with your kids when you get out and when it's safe to go do things again?
Well, it's funny you ask that, because my kids and I were talking about what we were going to do when I did leave. We're coming up with things like going to the movies and or going out to eat. And those are things that are much harder to do these days.
So I'm not really sure yet. Pretty much whatever we can do, we're going to do it. Just anything to spend time together, honestly.
Bobbi, I understand you're actually eligible for release, but the holdup is finding suitable housing. So what's going on with that? I imagine it's even harder to find suitable housing right now, but what do you think your future holds right now?
I'm not really sure. We [incarcerated people] are not capable of making phone calls to landlords like other people can, because we don't have the power to call outside [the facility]. We have a pin sheet or whatever, but we can't just put a random landlord on there to call.
So we're relying on other people to do that for us. And what I'm finding with having somebody else call a landlord, when the landlord is asking for my information, the people who have called aren't always able to give that information. This makes it so that I'm relying on somebody else entirely — my caseworker, pretty much — to do these things for me. I've entered into a couple of programs and hopefully will come up on a waiting list and be placed. I hope.
Jane Lindholm: Al Cormier, one of the things that we were seeing earlier in the pandemic was the Department of Corrections talking a lot about how it was releasing anyone who could safely be released to free up space in Vermont's correctional facilities and to ensure that someone like Bobbi isn't in prison when she doesn't need to be. But, here's a situation where Bobbi's eligible for release, but can't access suitable housing to then get released. I mean, just feels kind of like a catch-22.
Al Cormier: Yeah, it's a difficult situation. Our population is down by over 300 from where we were a year ago. So we have drastically reduced our population. I know we're seeing that in all of our facilities.
But at the same time, housing for anybody— for you, or I, or anybody in the community, is very difficult to find at this time. Obviously, being isolated makes it even more difficult. But we do try to work with the area’s resources; some of our designated agencies in the community to help and assist with finding housing for our population.
Our goal is to get people out. That's what we want to do; we want to see them succeed. And sometimes not having suitable housing is not going to allow them to succeed, unfortunately. I'm understanding of what Bobbi said. She should be able to work with the caseworker, and the caseworker should be able to allow her to pick up the phone and make those calls herself. If that isn't happening, I can certainly look into that. But housing is certainly an issue across the state.
Bobbi, do you need help with that or do you feel like you have it under control in terms of working with your case manager?
Bobbi: I mean, we're working on things now. It’s a little better than it has been in the last few weeks. But, yeah, I've been unable to just call random landlords by myself. That's not an option for me.
We got a note from B, who was hoping that we could talk about the difference in visitation policies, opportunities and processes between the women's facility and the men's facilities.
“An improved, sustained relationship with one's kids is a facet of a successful reentry to community. And kids fare better, too.”
Al Cormier, what do you think about the possibility of increasing, when it's safe to do so, the ability for fathers to have these kinds of visitations with their children?
Al Cormier: That's something I support, 100%. But it really, really falls back on funding. Unfortunately, these programs that are funded by our state budget or through the general fund, they come from donors, they come from federal grants.
Part of that is trying to find volunteers that are willing to come in and do this kind of work, as well. So it's a struggle and we would certainly like to see it increase, but it's not something that will be done easily or quickly, unfortunately, because of the lack of funding.
So, there's a couple of things that come up. I was an inmate at Chittenden County at the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak, and I was really relying on those visits to get through my time. And I ended up only having one visit and it was extremely challenging. I got out in late May.
First of all, there is a huge need for funding for women to get out to safe housing. There's very limited options and it’s incredibly difficult. As Bobbi was saying about making phone calls to try to advocate for yourself — I don't know if it's possible [from inside a facility]. I was able to get an apartment through the Hartford Restorative Community Justice, which has been really great. And it's now become my own apartment outright that I'm renting.
I'm just sad that there hasn't been more creativity in visitation. Visitation as far as what kids can send to their parents and setting up crafts or activities for the moms to be able to send to their kids. I know it was hard to get a photograph— things get scanned black and white. But I know that would mean a lot for moms to be able to have a real photograph of their kids to hang on to right now.
I'm sort of the opposite of Bobbi. I tried having the phone calls with Jess Kell, and I actually felt really uncomfortable and policed when I was speaking to my kids, to not show any emotion. So I opted out of that.
I used the tablet to call my kids and read to them every night. We've read Harry Potter. But there also wasn't a lot of kids books in the library, suitable books to read to my kids. They might want to look into that as a better option because I really do feel like that's what pulled us through.
I'm wondering also if there was an announcement made to the inmates that this interview was going to be on, because I'm sure they would have liked to listen on their tablet — if they could, because the tablets are extremely old and out of date. A lot of them just don't work. I think I had to turn mine in like three or four times because it had problems.
So it is a great resource. Except the library [on the tablet] that [Al Cormier] was talking about is actually just nonfiction books. And I don't think that there's any inmates who actually use that because there’s not a lot of interest.
Well, Kate, this is great to hear about your own first-hand, on-the-ground experiences with this. You were really relying on those visits, and then when you could only have one, I could imagine that was a real challenge for you just to try to make it through and keep your spirits up.
Kate: Yeah, it was incredibly difficult, and my heart breaks for those women who are in this situation. I can't imagine having to spend another second in there. What they're doing is really astounding.
Al Cormier, Kate had a lot to say there about some of the challenges with the tablets being old, not having great programming. She said some things that you could choose to respond to as well about what's in the library for parents to read to their kids or to find that's interesting.
What are they allowed to have and to be able to send back and forth in terms of photographs and drawings? Are there ways that you could try to make those connections easier and better given these really difficult circumstances and no visitation?
Al Cormier: Yes, and she brought up some really good points. I know we've had some trouble with the tablets. Everybody is struggling with getting technology because of the pandemic. We are trying to update those tablets and get newer models. But trying to obtain those right now is extremely difficult and even more difficult in trying to just replace the same model. So we know there are issues and those are things we're working on. As we try to amend and update our contract or GTL, that is something that's a priority for us.
The book section that she was talking about is the library that's on the tablet. There's a lot of resources on there, but she is right — it's a lot of nonfiction or classics.
Why is that? Is there a reason for that beyond that's just what this company is providing? Is there a reason why contemporary fiction wouldn't be included?
Unfortunately, it's just what they offer.
What about that creative approach to trying to facilitate parent child bonding right now? Kate was saying maybe there could be other things that could be done to try to to help right now especially, but that could also be carried over post-pandemic, because obviously visitation can't happen all the time. Are there ways to facilitate that bonding that would not only help the parent-child bond, helping the parent get through, but also help the children who are really suffering and struggling, not being able to be near their parent in many cases.
There's a lot of things that can probably be done. It involves finding the resources and getting those creative thinkers in the same room to talk about it. Obviously with corrections, there are a multitude of things going on, even without the pandemic. Throwing the pandemic into the mix, a lot of people are focused on keeping people safe. But it is about bringing people to the table and having those conversations about what we can do and how we can make it work.
There are a lot of variables: there are schedules, there's limitations on spaces inside of our correctional facilities. I mean, they're small, they're outdated, and space is at a premium in all of them. But I am certainly one that's open to doing whatever we can to enhance and improve that bond.
I was an inmate— not during this pandemic, but during times when facilities had to be in lockdown. I believe strongly that parent-child contact in whatever form is available is really important. That being said, I think it's also important to note that Al Cormier and Jim Baker are working very hard to try and make those connections possible.
I'm now an advocate and I'm on an executive committee with the Department of Corrections on how to make our correctional facilities better places to live and better places to work. People need to know that there are programs in place right now with the Department of Corrections to facilitate contacts. Currently, Commissioner Baker has designated a few people to assist family members with complaints and problems, and some of those relate to the lack of connection.
Tim, you've seen it from a couple of different sides now. What's the difference in how you see things now from how you saw things then?
Well, the difference is when you step outside of being the incarcerated person or the person on supervision and are asked to the table as I was, you get to see that it's not just black and white.
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