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. Evidence-based rehabilitative programs and services – including educational classes, family visitation, phone and written correspondence, and social/recreational activities – are necessary for successful rehabilitation and reentry into life after incarceration.
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. Continuing to suspend normal operations will exacerbate the negative effects of the pandemic.
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, poor impulse control, anger, irritability, hostility, 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 severely and universally restrict social interactions is akin to punishing people with solitary confinement and will cause long term harm.
The effects of these harsh conditions are not only shown in national research, but also here in the commonwealth. I have spoken with numerous Kentuckians who were incarcerated during the pandemic or are currently incarcerated. Most describe facilities as being operated like they are under solitary confinement. They report an institutional disregard of their physical and mental health and inadequate access to rehabilitative services. 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. She’s just a little girl and doesn’t understand how these things work and I have to try my best to not break down when she asks if they can come see me and why they can’t. I’m really hoping they lift the visit restrictions soon so I can see my family and meet my son. He’s getting so big and I feel horrible that he doesn’t really know me and that’s something I can’t control but it still hurts."
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. You feel mentally free. 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."
When the government chooses to incarcerate a person, they also assume the responsibility of caring for that person. We, as a society, cannot continue to 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 on the outside 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.
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