Incarcerated people in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) are allowed in-person visits once again, after a stoppage of more than a year due to COVID-19.
The CDCR had suspended visits in March 2020 to mitigate the spread of the virus, but now that a sizable percentage of the population has been vaccinated and case numbers are way down, visits can resume, subject to strict health and safety protocols.
This is great news for incarcerated people, as for the past 14 months we have mostly been able to communicate with loved ones only through written correspondence and 15-minute phone calls. The lack of visitors, plus the COVID-19 news reports that we heard about, exacerbated the anxiety that already existed behind prison walls.
It helped that CDCR partnered with Global Tel Link (GTL), a Reston, Virginia-based telecommunications company that provides calling services from prison, so each of us could have two free phone call days per month.
People who would otherwise not have the funds were able to call their loved ones, and some people reconnected with loved ones they hadn’t spoken to in years. Sadly, others found out COVID-19 had taken loved ones.
In December 2020, nine months after suspending visits, the CDCR took another step and offered 30-minute video visits through Cisco’s Webex platform. We were allowed one free 30-minute session every 30 days, plus an additional 30-minute session after being released from COVID-19 quarantine or isolation housing.
On December 27, 2020, I had my first ever video call with my loved ones. I was called out for my visit at 8:30 a.m. and brought to the regular visiting area, where there were three computer stations spaced at least six feet apart.
As the officer led me to my station, I saw my mother, brother and his wife on the screen, and as soon as I entered the picture frame, they all grinned and waved. They were happy to see I was okay, especially since the rest of my sub-facility’s housing units were in quarantine.
Since it was the holiday season, the visiting officers were gracious enough to allow me an extra 15 minutes. “Merry Christmas,” one of them said to me afterwards.
While it was not the same as an in-person visit, it was definitely better than nothing. I was glad that my family didn’t have to spend hours on the road to see me; they could see and talk to me from the comfort of my brother’s home, which I was able to see a little bit of for the first time. In my next video visit, I was able to finally meet my youngest niece as well.
On April 1, CDCR announced that it would resume in-person visiting in phases, beginning April 10, though the ultimate decision to reopen each institution’s in-person visitation program would be at the discretion of each prison’s warden and chief executive officer.
On April 17, Pleasant Valley State Prison, the California prison I’m presently housed in, reopened its in-person visitation program on Saturdays, and also increased Sunday video visits to one hour.
As I see my fellow incarcerated people return from visits, I notice non-stop smiling.
“I wish the visit was longer, but I’ll take what I can get,” said one of them after being able to hug a loved one for the first time in over a year.
With California Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement of plans to fully reopen California by June 15, and the CDCR vaccinating its incarcerated population and slowly reopening its in-person visitations, a sense of normalcy is finally returning.
I’m looking forward to my own in-person visit sometime in the next couple of months.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.