State prisons require visitors to call to schedule a visit, a pandemic-era hurdle some say has kept them from seeing incarcerated loved ones. (Getty Images)
More than three years after the state closed New Jersey prisons to visitors as a pandemic precaution, they’ve opened them up again — but a lingering requirement to schedule visits has kept visiting rooms at many facilities largely empty.
While research shows outside visits help ensure order behind bars by bolstering the morale and mental health of incarcerated people, families and advocates say the scheduling requirement has become another hurdle, along with onerous visitation restrictions in place before the pandemic, that drives prison staff to deny visits for even one misstep or missed time window.
“They make you jump through so many hoops, it’s stricter than the friggin’ airport,” said Susan Guardia, whose son Evan Raczkiewicz has been incarcerated in New Jersey for almost three years.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman didn’t respond to questions from the New Jersey Monitor.
Terry Schuster, the state’s corrections ombudsperson, said scheduling allows prison staff to answer questions and explain visitation rules ahead of time to avoid visitors being barred for violating the dress code, which prohibits things many people wear like khaki pants, shirts with messages, flip flops, and tight clothing or clothes that reveal midriffs or cleavage.
“Accommodating visitors is easier on the Department of Corrections if they have a heads-up about who’s coming and when,” Schuster said.
But, he added, “quite a few people see the scheduling requirement as a barrier, reporting difficulties getting ahold of facility staff to schedule visits.”
“Press 1” to be transferred … nowhere
To schedule a visit to any one of the 11,000 adults incarcerated in New Jersey’s nine state prisons, callers must navigate an automated phone system.
In calls to each prison Wednesday, the New Jersey Monitor found that two transferred calls inquiring about visits led to silence (New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and Northern State Prison in Newark); one transferred to a line that rang unanswered (South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton); and three routed calls to recorded messages that provided visiting and registration hours and details about identification needed but no further scheduling instructions (Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, and the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Woodbridge).
Live people answered the phone prepared to schedule visits at just two facilities — East Jersey State Prison in Rahway and the Mid-State Correctional Facility in Wrightstown. A live person who answered the phone at 3:15 p.m. at the Garden State Correctional Facility in Crosswicks said people have to call before 3 p.m. to schedule visits.
Visiting times and protocols vary from prison to prison, adding to the confusion. At some, visiting opportunities have shrunk to two-hour stretches a few days a week, while some require same-day registration and give visitors a registration window as narrow as 45 minutes.
Staff members sometimes “create scarcity” that can thwart visits too, said the Rev. J. Amos Caley, a pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park and organizer with Salvation and Social Justice and New Jersey Prison Justice Watch.
“Human contact is actually important for people’s rehabilitation and ongoing sanity,” Caley said. “But one of the things that we have seen is that each facility has certain kinds of hair-trigger responses that will create lockdown conditions that really limit the discretionary time that people have to do things, including visits.”
At New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, LaShawn Fitch said he hasn’t seen his mother, son, or any other visitors in more than three years. His mother has repeatedly called to schedule a visit and either not gotten through or encountered “rude behavior” and hang-ups, Fitch said.
“If you ask me, it is a form of visit suppression,” Fitch said. “Even though visitation is permitted to strengthen family bonds and ties, this policy is weakening them.”
Guardia agreed, saying she has been able to visit her son, who’s also at New Jersey State Prison, but she’s seen other visitors rejected because they missed the registration window or officers declared visiting hours fully booked.
“It is depressing to go into the jail. I don’t mind it. I can deal with it,” she said. “But for my son, I’m a lifeline for him.”
Many incarcerated people have grown accustomed to seeing their loved ones only through photographs, because pandemic restrictions have lasted so long that many still communicate with the outside only by phone, mail, and email, Schuster said.
But the social distancing requirements and other restrictions put in place early in the pandemic isolated incarcerated people in other ways, too, as the system cut rehabilitation programs run by both volunteers and staff, he said.
With restrictions lifted, corrections officials have a big task ahead to resume programming and rebuild their volunteer base, he added.
“People talk about visits like it’s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, like: ‘I really needed that to feel like myself again’ or ‘I needed to see somebody who loves me and who can help me feel normal and can help me get through the day,’” Schuster said. “Especially for people who have been away a long time, they don’t have a sense of how their kids are growing up, and seeing them in person is really meaningful in a way that a photograph isn’t.”
This story was first published by the New Jersey Monitor, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
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