Pair of bills would help prisoners and their families stay connected

Gazette photo by Thomas Giery Pudney
Assembly Corrections Chair David Weprin, at podium, and Assemblywoman De La Rosa, left, are joined by colleagues and prison rights advocates as they push for two bills that would expand visitation hours at medium security prisons and restore free bus services to help families visit their loved ones in state correctional facilities.

Assemblyman David Weprin and Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa are hoping to restore two programs they say benefit prisoners, their families, and even New York state taxpayers.

The Weprin and De La Rosa bills would re-establish seven-day-a-week visitation at medium security prisons and restore a program that transports families to prisons across the state, respectively.

Specifically, Weprin’s bill, A.7241 restores seven-day visitation at medium security prisons, where violence has reportedly increased in recent years. Seven day visitation is already offered in minimum and maximum security facilities across the state. The bill would codify those visitation programs in an effort to make them permanent.

Weprin, who chairs the Committee on Correction, said visitation is the only form of contact with the outside world that inmates have.

“The amount gained by limiting visitation in our prisons does not match what is lost,” Weprin said. “Increased visiting has been proven to reduce recidivism, as visits help family members maintain ties and help incarcerated individuals transition to a life outside prison after release.

“On top of that, there is evidence to suggest that more visiting means less violence in prisons, which means a better work environment for both civilian and security employees in New York’s prisons,” he said. “And even if we look at it from a cost standpoint, reduced recidivism would greatly lower costs for the state in the long term.”

De La Rosa’s bill, A.7016, restores transportation services for visitors from Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and New York City during the weekend. A state program provided this service from the mid 1970s until 2011, but the program was cut in 2011 to save a little less than $1.5 million. The lawmaker explained the need for this program, as a family can spend up to $70 per person on transportation to visit a loved one in prison.

De la Rosa said $1.5 million is “not a lot of cost saving” when you consider the impacts on the prisoners’ families.

“Studies have shown that family visitation contributes to reductions in recidivism and improved inmate behavior which results in safer prisons and cost savings in the long run,” De La Rosa said. “There are close to 100,000 children in our state who have an incarcerated parent.

“When you look at communities who have families that have been historically and disproportionately affected by criminal justice policies in our state, it is incumbent upon us to find solutions that foster a family’s ability to maintain relationships.”

Karen Murtagh, the director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, said the best way to integrate inmates back into society is to maintain family ties. She said when there is a lack of relationships in an inmate’s life, there is a higher risk of them going back to prison.

She also explained that children with incarcerated parents who they don’t see regularly are more likely to end up in prison themselves because they didn’t have a proper mentor while they were growing up.

“If we put our resources into maintaining those family ties, not only do we save the $60,000 a year on incarceration costs, but we save the future incarceration costs of those children,” Murtagh said.

Weprin’s visitation bill resides in the Ways and means Committee. De la Rosa’s bus service bill has advanced to a third reading.

De La Rosa and Weprin noted there are just a few days of session left, and are calling on their colleagues to take action on these bills before June 21.