For the Families of Incarcerated People, Video Visits Replace In-Person Face Time


On a recent Thursday afternoon, five-year-old Tahnyia Shirir walked into a basement room at the Brooklyn Public Library’s East New York branch to visit her dad, Tahriek. Tahnyia and her mother, Jahnyia Land, were accompanied by Tahnyia’s aunt and by her uncle’s ten-month-old son. Tahnyia wiggled out of her black parka to reveal her school uniform. “Have you grown?” Tahriek asked his daughter from a television screen.

Tahriek is currently incarcerated at Rikers Island. He’s been there for about a year, but this was only Tahnyia’s second time video-visiting with him through the library’s twelve-branch TeleStory program, which allows families to talk with their incarcerated loved ones. Over the course of an hour-long call, Tahnyia told her dad about her day at school, opened a book, and danced around the room while her parents discussed an upcoming birthday, Tahnyia’s asthma medication, and her mom’s medical technology classes at Long Island Business Institute.

Tahnyia is one of 105,000 children in New York State who currently have a parent in prison or jail. Nationwide, that figure rises to 2.7 million, while more than 5 million have had an incarcerated parent at some point in their lives. From 1980 to 2000, the number of American kids with an incarcerated father rose by 500 percent; African-American children are over seven times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than are their white peers. Latino children are more than twice as likely.

Longstanding guidelines for maintaining the connection between incarcerated parents and their children stress the child’s ability to speak with, see, and touch her parent. But that vital access is starting to disappear: According to a 2015 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 500 prisons or jails in 43 states are experimenting with video visitation; 74 percent of jails using it have eliminated in-person visits. New York facilities have yet to do this, but Governor Cuomo recently proposed a new budget that would lower the number of days on which visits are permitted at maximum-security prisons. In their place, video visiting would increase.

This shift from face-to-face interactions to video visits worries Tanya Krupat, program director at the Osborne Association, a New York organization that runs programs for children of incarcerated parents as part of its prison reform efforts.

“The governor’s proposal to reduce visiting days at maximum-security prisons is a short-sighted and misdirected way to cut costs. Fewer visiting days would be devastating for children and families, as well as those who are incarcerated,” she told the Voice. “Visits are not a privilege or a reward for good behavior; they are a right. New York is a national leader in recognizing the importance of visits. We should not be moving backwards at this critical time to lead.”

In response, Morris Peters, a spokesman for the governor’s budget division, wrote, “Weekend visitations” — which remain intact in the new proposal — “are the most popular as many families have to travel long distances. This change — which comes with the expanded use of video conferencing — would be a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars and match the preexisting policy” at medium-security Department of Corrections and Community Supervision facilities.

But, as Krupat added, “Children tell us all the time: Nothing replaces that quality in-person time.” Research shows that maintaining such contact helps children to succeed while their parents are away — and helps parents to more smoothly re-enter their communities afterward.

For Bronx state senator Gustavo Rivera, a member of the Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction Committee, the governor’s plan doesn’t pay off. “While maintaining a balanced budget is critical, this policy shift will primarily affect the families and children of incarcerated individuals staying at these facilities,” he explained. Governor Cuomo, he said, should “reconsider this policy change and avoid placing further obstacles on already vulnerable communities.”

Many of those obstacles are travel-related. Some state prisons are near the Canadian border, hundreds of miles from New York City. In 2011, the state government eliminated a free bus program that took city residents to those locations.

The Osborne Association is picking up some of that slack for children like Jamaill Burl, whom Osborne brought last year to visit his dad at Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison about 60 miles from Rochester. Now sixteen, Jamaill doesn’t know when he’ll be able to see his dad again after a move to Clinton Correctional Facility, about 25 miles south of Canada in Dannemora — too far for Osborne to facilitate visits, or for Jamaill’s grandmother to drive him from East New York. “Some people can’t afford to go see their parents very often,” says Jamaill. “It’s either they’re too far or they don’t have enough money to go all that way.”

Jamaill’s father has been incarcerated since Jamaill was born, but they speak on the phone every day. Twice a month, they speak face-to-face through Osborne’s video-visiting program, currently connected to Clinton and one other state prison.

Despite the infrequent face-to-face contact, Jamaill still feels close to the father he’s never lived with thanks to the video visits and phone calls. “Some people may not want to talk to the people around them. They want to talk to their parents about certain things,” he explains.

While advocates continue to develop supplementary video-visiting programs, they’re still pushing to eliminate growing barriers to in-person visits. After hearing from some of the teenagers in Osborne’s programs, Senator Rivera helped develop the Proximity Bill, which, if passed, would create a pilot program requiring the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to take proximity to family members into account when assigning people to prisons.

“There is plenty of evidence that doesn’t suggest, but straight-up demonstrates, that connection to family is one of the strongest things that will keep someone from recidivating,” Rivera says.

In the meantime, families struggling to see their incarcerated relatives continue with the video visits. The day before Tahnyia Shirir spoke with her dad from East New York, children in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick used TeleStory to do the same with their incarcerated parents. In Bensonhurst, an undocumented mother used it to speak with her incarcerated son (she worries about the potential risk of visiting Rikers in person). In the colorful room used for video visits at Osborne’s Downtown Brooklyn office, young people have celebrated birthdays and readied for prom.

Leaving the East New York library basement after her video call ended that Thursday afternoon, Jahnyia Land said she planned to bring Tahnyia back as often as possible. In the past, going to Rikers had been a bad experience for the young child, and Jahnyia liked that this offered an option beyond a phone call. “He can see her growth,” she said, walking up the stairs to the library’s main floor. “See if she’s happy or sad or missing teeth.”