As Prisons Cancel Visitation, The Phone Line Becomes A Life Line
Tami Peay's husband is incarcerated in a Utah state prison for an illegal drugs conviction, and she hasn't seen him in more than four months. She used to see him at least once a week. But that was before visitations were nixed due to COVID-19.
She says not seeing him more is really hard, and she worries a lot.
"When you can't see them, their look in their eyes," Peay says, trailing off. "You can tell if they're stressed. You can tell if things are good and they're really handling things fine – or not. That's probably been the hardest part, is just not being able to see if he's truly OK."
Utah's state prisons are trying to help. They're currently allowing each inmate 10 free phone calls a week while visitations are off-limits. That's a big deal. Peay used to spend $40 or $50 a month to talk to her husband on the phone. She says the free calls keep them connected, which is crucial.
"The family, friends on the outside, we're their support system," Peay says. "When they get out and if they feel disconnected from us, it makes it really difficult on them."
State prisons across the Mountain West are taking similar steps to provide a limited number of free calls. And at the national level, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has waived fees for all video and phone calls for its inmates.
These policies aren't just about inmates and their families, though. A number of studies show that contact with family and friends in the outside world is critical for reducing recidivism.
"Ninety to 95% of individuals that just happen to be incarcerated will be back out in the community at some point," says Mike Haddon, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections. "They're going to be rejoining, in many cases, those family members. And it's really important for them to maintain that contact."
One study that followed more than 250 prisoners after their release found that "familial telephone contact was most consistently associated with reductions in recidivism."
Paul Wright is the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit that advocates for inmate rights. He says inmates usually rely on family for housing and for finding work when they get out.
"It's going to be through social networking that they're going to get their initial job or initial employment," he says.
That aside, though, Wright stresses that inmates are also dealing with the COVID-19 crisis right now. They're experiencing the same isolation, loneliness and anxiety that many of us are feeling – and in an environment more prone to outbreaks.
"There's nothing special about people being in prison or people having loved ones in prison," he says. "You want to communicate with your loved ones and your family and you want to know how they're doing. You're worried about their safety."
Wright believes prisons shouldn't be charging phone fees in the first place, but he applauds prisons for waiving them during the pandemic.
But in many facilities, it's not as simple as offering free calls. Often phones are in common areas and access is limited because of social distancing requirements. That has some prisons getting creative. In Idaho, for example, locked down prisons are trying out cordless phones so inmates can make calls to family from their cells.
And in Utah, Haddon says they're looking into visitation via video.
"It's a silver lining," he says. "We don't have it in place yet, but it's pushing us to try to get that technology in place a lot sooner than what we were expecting."
But it's not in place yet, and Tami Peay wants the prison to hurry up. She says it's good to be able to talk to her husband, but seeing him would be much better, even if only on a screen. For her, and for him.
"To see me, to see the grandkids," Peay says. "I think it just helps them feel more connected."
Even with seemingly small things, Peay says, like meeting the 120-pound Newfoundland puppy she recently adopted. She believes those things add up to inmates feeling like part of the family, and wanting to do well when they get out.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.