The end of the pandemic is in sight and many parts of life are recovering and changing to a new normal. However, the Kentucky Department of Corrections (DOC) has failed to adapt and continues to ignore the needs of incarcerated Kentuckians and their families.
Many normal operations and programs were changed or suspended in the interest of public health, but some remain suspended unnecessarily. Family visitation is among the most important programs to keep people connected with their loved ones. DOC recently announced facilities could resume visitation for vaccinated people, but several are choosing not to reopen. These programs keep families connected, prepare people for reentry into the workforce, support people through treatment for substance use disorder, and reduce the chance a person will break the law again.
DOC officials are aware of the importance of these programs as they often discipline people by revoking access in normal times. No matter what mistake a person may have made, we are still humans and still need social contact. Stress from isolation causes a range of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, panic attacks, psychosis, suicide, and self-harm, to name a few. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports approximately 25% of people in prison and 35% of those in jail who spent 30 days or longer in solitary confinement during the previous year showed symptoms of serious psychological distress. Continuing to universally restrict social interactions will cause long term harm.
I have spoken with numerous Kentuckians who were incarcerated during the pandemic or are currently incarcerated. Most describe facilities as being operated as though they are under solitary confinement. One of those individuals explained the impact visitation suspension had on him:
“Not being able to meet my first born due to the halt of in person visits has been very difficult for me. I’ve only gotten to watch him grow up through photos and I worry a lot how meeting him for the first time will go. Not being able to hold my wife is also very hard. She’s my best friend and she plays a major role in my mental health. Having to explain to my 5-year-old that we can’t see each other breaks my heart. “- WJ
Another incarcerated individual discussed the sense of hopelessness, and the incentive to maintain clear conduct and employment for visitation purposes:
“Visits are so important to me because when you get to hold your loved ones — they make you feel like you’re in a whole other place for those 2 hours. Since we haven’t had visits, the only thing I looked forward to is gone. The only privilege we had left is gone. Visits are a reason for lots of people to behave and work hard, and it’s gone. Our hope is gone. I’m glad we have the zoom visits but 15 minutes a month isn’t enough. We are human beings. We need human interaction for our mental health. My wife is my world and seeing her is all I have.” -TT
When the government chooses to incarcerate a person, they also assume the responsibility of caring for that person. We, as a society, cannot place individuals in the care of any department that is unable or unwilling to provide the services people deserve and need. We, as taxpayers, deserve a system that rehabilitates people so they can return to life and become full and supportive members of their communities. We, as families, deserve the opportunity to visit with our loved ones. Open your doors and return to normal institutional operations.
Marcus Jackson is the organizing coordinator for the ACLU of Kentucky’s Smart Justice Advocates, a group that works to inspire change, relying on values of hope and integrity to advance the fight for freedom and equality for all those impacted by the justice system.