Virtual Visits In Prison: Incarcerated Parents Support Their Children From A Distance

Nov 18, 2020

Incarceration is never easy, and COVID-19 has created a multitude of new challenges. Since March, incarcerated parents have been limited to virtual visitation with their children. This hour, we hear from the Department of Corrections and several other voices about current visitation regulations and how they have impacted incarcerated parents.

Our guests are: 

  • Al Cormier, facilities executive at Vermont Department of Corrections
  • Jess Kell, coordinator with Kids-A-Part
  • Bobbi, a mother currently incarcerated at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility

Editor's note: Bobbi spoke to Vermont Edition on the condition that we only use her first name because of confidentiality reasons. 

Broadcast live on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

VPR’s Jane Lindholm spoke with Al Cormier, chief of operations with Vermont’s Department of Corrections, and Jess Kell, parenting coordinator with Kids-A-Part. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to the full episode, here.

Q & A With Al Cormier, Chief Of Operations At Vt. Department of Corrections

Jane Lindholm: Can you talk a little bit about what rules are in place? Is it just simply no in-person visitation, under any circumstances, in Vermont prisons right now?

Al Cormier: That is how we are operating currently. Our visitation ban went into effect in March, when we started seeing the first signs of COVID cases in Vermont. 

We looked at our facilities and said we need to address the situation immediately, knowing that the biggest threat was coming from the outside. And unfortunately, family visitation is one of those threats from the outside.

More From VPR: How Are Vermont Prisons Handling COVID-19?

That was one of the first things we did was suspend the visiting inside of our facilities and shut down our volunteer programs, our education programs, our risk reduction programing. We knew that it was the safest choice, but not a choice that we took lightheartedly, by any means. But it was about the safety of our inmate population and our staff, as well.

Even when some visitation rules in other kinds of facilities and buildings where there is great risk to a vulnerable population were eased, that wasn't the case in Vermont's prisons? There was no easing of the visitation restrictions through the summer months, for example?

There was not and it was a constant communication that we had. We set our Incident Command System up in March, when this first started, and it's a topic that we discuss regularly.

We have actually started the process of revamping our visiting rooms and adapting our visiting room tables to include Plexiglass barriers in an attempt to protect both staff and inmates and their families. But as this continued to pick up, we made the decision again to not move forward with reinstituting visiting in our facilities.

"If you look at the numbers that are increasing in the long term care facilities now, I think the one variable that changed was opening visitation." - Al Cormier, Vt. Dept. of Corrections

Is there an exception for mothers of infants? For women who give birth while they're incarcerated, or are breastfeeding, are they allowed to keep their infant children with them?

Not inside, they are not allowed. The births that do occur with women who are incarcerated are at the hospital. We follow the doctor's recommendation on release and when they come back to the facility, but unfortunately, they're not allowed to bring their children back with them.

What are you seeing as the negative effects and negative impacts on the decision to close the facilities to all visitors, understanding that you believe it to be the right one and a necessary one to protect the health of people who are incarcerated?

Well, there's an emotional impact, obviously, with not being able to see loved ones through visitation. But a lot of our inmate population look forward to our volunteer services. One of the programs we offer is a book reading club. The inmates are actually allowed to read a book, they record it, and they get to send it home to their children so that their children can have a bedtime story from their incarcerated parent.

We're not able to provide our church services; the in-person prayer and religious services that keep people motivated and uplifted. We've made some adjustments with that process, with recorded sessions. We did do an outside session this summer and in St. Johnsbury where church members were able to come in with local volunteers and do an outside concert.

But we know that the education piece is huge. A lot of our inmates look forward to that education that keeps them occupied. It keeps them focused. It gives them something to look forward to as far as completion with a program or a class. So we know it's a heavy impact on everybody.

You're working to try to protect physical well-being by preventing the spread of COVID-19. But what kind of other services are you increasing to make sure that people who no longer have these programs and no longer have in-person contact with loved ones are able to maintain mental health?

We have increased our mental health services inside of our facilities, especially in our quarantine and isolation units. All of our new intakes come in and quarantine for 14 days with the COVID testing during that 14-day-period. So we do have increased mental health services to talk with the inmates that are in that situation.

We do have libraries in our facility. There are books available and reading. And each of our inmates has the ability to be issued a tablet, like a mini iPad. That tablet allows them to make phone calls, send messages to their family, receive messages, receive photographs, see pictures of their family and their loved ones.

They have an opportunity for radio, for music, for video game downloads. Those things are there to keep them occupied. There's a whole library on that tablet— it's a web-based system, so the inmate population can download books.

And there is video visitation from our provider that we give the tablets from, GTL. We were able to work out an arrangement with them for two free five-minute phone calls per week and one free video visitation per week, which is 30 minutes.

Our entire population is getting this opportunity to have this video visit with loved ones, where a lot of them weren't able to prior, because they didn't have the funds or the resources to pay for the video. Now we're providing that at the cost of the department. The inmates are not having to pay for this, and their families are not having to pay for this.

My understanding is that there's a video kiosk in a central location where the video chats take place. That must make things difficult. Not only with noise, but depending on who you're talking to— that may be distracting or perhaps even alarming to a small child who's looking out at a background of a public video chat while trying to talk to a parent.

It's not an ideal situation, by any means. But some of the feedback that we get from our incarcerated population is that they enjoy that video visit because they get to see their home. They get to see what's going on in their house. They can see more than one person at a time

With in-person visiting, you get three people that can come in and see you. You can have your entire family there with this video visit. You can see your living room, you can see your kitchen. There is some benefit to that piece of it, where they actually feel like they're at home when they're doing this.

"You can have your entire family there with this video visit. You can see your living room, you can see your kitchen. There is some benefit to that piece of it, where they actually feel like they're at home when they're doing this." - Al Cormier, Dept. of Corrections

That is some of the feedback we've received. And again, not ideal for the party on the other end, having to look into a living unit in a correctional facility. But it's what we have right now.

Anybody who comes into a Vermont prison needs to quarantine for two weeks to avoid spreading COVID-19 from somebody new coming in. Are they allowed to have those tablets with them and other personal belongings?

They are. They're allowed the tablets we provide. We have been providing crayons, coloring books, crossword puzzles, word search books— items such as that to keep people occupied during that quarantine time, understanding again that it's not an easy thing to go through.

Is that quarantine time pretty much akin to solitary confinement? I mean, how can D.O.C. make it feel less like a punishment?

Well, it's difficult, for sure. One of the things where it hopefully doesn't feel quite as much as a punishment is that they do get their personal belongings. They do get the books and the coloring pencils and crossword puzzles and their tablets, where they wouldn't have that in a disciplined, segregation, confinement setting.

We do try to do work on the education front to let people know that this isn’t punishment; that we're trying to keep them safe, trying to keep the facility safe. That's one thing that I can say that I've been really proud of— from not only our staff, but from the inmate population. We've basically been in a modified lockdown in all of our facilities since March with no major issues; no major disturbances.

The inmates understand why we're doing this. The staff understand why we're doing this. And it's stressful on both. Our staff are working a lot of long hours, the inmates are in their cells for more hours than they normally would be. But as a group, and through communication and education, I just give credit to the entire population for understanding and being patient with us as we try to work through this.

More from VPR: Vermont Inmates Allege Lack Of Care In Mississippi Prison Hit By COVID-19

We weren't able to have him join us on the air, but Tom Dalton, who's executive director with Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform offered some statements for the program that we can share. One of them is about some inmates who are really struggling with not being able to be released right now and this may be impacting their ability to parent.

Tom says:

“I recently contacted the Department of Corrections about an incarcerated father whose daughter had been taken into custody. The father was not being included in DCF case plan review meetings, court hearings or other meetings. He was not even getting notices of the hearings. The father was eligible for release, but the department was holding him because they wanted him to complete programming. The programming was not being offered inside the prison due to COVID-19 restrictions, but could have been completed through alternative means in the community.

“After spending months of unnecessary incarceration, the father asked Corrections to take another look at his family situation. We provided a letter from the incarcerated father’s family court attorney that said the father's, ‘current incarceration jeopardizes his parental rights as it pertains to his daughter.’ The attorney pointed out that if the father was released on supervision, the risk of having his parental rights terminated would be decreased, and said that the father's current custody status prevents any such reunification and ability to work his DCF case plan.

“I was notified by the Corrections Central Office that the decision was made to not even reconsider his case. Apparently, this distraught father and his vulnerable daughter were not considered worth the trouble of a second.”

Can you comment on Tom's statement?

I'm not 100 percent familiar with this case, so I don't know all the details. I know that as we have gone through this, and up until the last couple of weeks when we've seen this increase in COVID cases, we have been able to offer some of our risk reduction programming.

We’ve gotten our risk intervention specialists into the facility. The risk reduction programming materials have been uploaded to our tablets, so that programming and education classes can continue. Our risk intervention specialists are speaking with the inmates via the phone system through their tablets.

So we haven't completely shut down our risk reduction programming or our education services. I know that it has been difficult trying to set up. Even remote type visitation outside of the family system— we are working with the court, we're doing video arraignments in all of our facilities.

One of the things we're working on right now is to install a telehealth-type system in our visiting rooms so that cases such as this with DCF, civil court cases or anything that would require a one-on-one interaction.

But our casework staff are still in our facilities, meeting with the inmate population. In a case such as this, they do pick up the phone and have the inmate on the phone with DCF, or child support services, or whoever they may need to communicate with. So those resources are still available, albeit on a more limited basis. 

What are the metrics for when and how the department would reopen the visitation policy? Because it wasn't loosened during the summer months when other types of facilities that have vulnerable live-in populations were able to have visitation. So what are the rules around when you would be able to allow people to have visits again?

We're really watching the science. We're watching the numbers, we're watching the data, we're using a data model which looks at projections. We're looking at that as we move forward.

At the top of the hour, we heard Secretary Smith talk about further restrictions for hospitals and long term care facilities. We have to keep an eye on what we're seeing in the community and just try to stay ahead of that. And while the impacts of not having visitation is great, I think we're doing the best we can to keep our facility safe. While the video isn't the best, it's working for us right now.

But is there a metric? Because as I said, other places— hospitals, long term care facilities, did allow visitation— not right now as much because of our surge, but did earlier. And D.O.C. still didn't. So what is the threshold?

Well, I think if you look at the numbers that are increasing in the long term care facilities now, I think the one variable that changed was opening visitation. That's something that I think about every day, that the one thing that changed for those long term care facilities was visitation.

We know that the virus comes to our facilities from the outside, which is why we're testing to suppress. We're going to a biweekly testing strategy with our staff now— from a six week strategy to a biweekly strategy.

I don't know if it's the vaccine. We are watching the science, working with Dr. Levine and his crew. We just have to keep our eye on the future to see what comes.

More from Vermont Edition: Vermont's Prison COVID-19 Outbreak Brings Concerns For Inmates And Their Families

Q & A With Jess Kell, Parenting Coordinator Kids-A-Part

Jess Kell, for mothers specifically, there are usually programs to make sure that parents can interact with their children and that interaction can feel a little bit more comfortable and cozy. Can you talk a little bit about what Kids-A-Part does?

Jess Kell: In the Lund Kids-A-Part program, we have a space here in the correctional facility, which is sort of separate from the main part of the building. It's a very cozy, welcoming, child-focused space.

We provide case management, support groups, educational groups, visitation. I have a coworker based out in the community who works with the caregivers of the children statewide. So when a mom is in here, we really try to wrap services around the whole family.

So how different and difficult does it feel right now with no visitation?

It feels really hard. It's really different. Usually there are children in this space on a regular basis. I usually have one-on-one visits with some of the families a few times a week.

"It's just so instinctual for a parent to have that physical contact with their child, and it's so important for the kids, too." - Jess Kell, Kids-A-Part

Twice a month on Saturdays, we have big group visits that take place here. We have the gym open and we have arts and crafts and pizza, and the families are just moving all over the space. It's usually a very joyful, loud and busy place.

Even when visits are not going on, I usually have some moms down here working on projects for their children and calling them. This is usually a very active space, but with the COVID restrictions, we can't even do the groups right now because we can't gather in those kinds of numbers.

So when you have video chats now, how are you coordinating them? We talked with Al Cormier earlier about the video kiosks in the sort of public areas. You're doing it a little bit differently, though, right?

I was off site for several months at the beginning of the year, at the beginning of the pandemic. I was given permission to come in a couple of days before Mother's Day and do some visits. The facility had reached out to me to say, ‘What can we do to support the moms?’ That's when these Zoom visits started.

The moms come down here one at a time. They sit on a couch right near my desk, surrounded by toys and books and stuffed animals and a dollhouse. It's a space that the moms are familiar with and are comfortable in, and that their children are used to seeing them in — especially the kids who have already been here for visitation. So it's adding a level of familiarity to those video visits.

More from Brave Little State: Why Are There So Many African-Americans Incercerated In Vermont?

In normal times, kid’s visits can include hugging and cuddling and playing, especially with younger children. Can you talk about the importance of touch?

With Kids-A-Part, all visits are full contact. So whether we're talking about an infant, or a child in elementary school, or a teenager— all of the families that visit have the ability to hug and touch and snuggle. And it is so important. I mean, it's just so instinctual for a parent to have that physical contact with their child and it's so important for the kids, too.

"What we also know is that when a mom is incarcerated, there's a high likelihood that the father is also incarcerated. So originally, when the goal was looking at how we best support kids with incarcerated parents, we were going to reach the most number of families through working through the moms." - Jess Kell, Kids-A-Part

I'll say that one of the things we see so often and I think would surprise people is how snuggly most of the teens who come in here for visits are. The littler kids are the ones that are busy and running around. But it's the teens that are most likely to spend most of a visit sitting right next to mom with an arm around her.

Kids-A-Part operates out of the only women's facility in Vermont, at Chittenden Regional. Why aren't these programs in the men's facilities?

That's an interesting question, and we do get asked that question regularly. When this program first started back in 2003, what we knew to be true at that point was that when a father was incarcerated, there was a very high likelihood that the children were still at home with their mom. And that's still true.

What we also know is that when a mom is incarcerated, there's a high likelihood that the father is also incarcerated. So originally, when the goal was looking at how we best support kids with incarcerated parents, we were going to reach the most number of families through working through the moms. That's where the original focus was. 

Would you like to see these programs and special rooms for kids and for visitation also incorporated into the men's facilities?

We would love to have the funding to expand into the men's facilities. Funding always becomes the barrier. But we would very much love to be able to increase the number of families that we have the capacity to serve.

More from Vermont Edition: Report: COVID-19 Disproportionately Impacts Women's Health, Work & Financial Security

Where would that funding need to come from the state, the correctional budget or from donors and supporters?

Federal budget, state budget, foundations, private donors. Any and all.

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