Virtual visits: a good change for incarcerated families? 00:00

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Virtual visits: a good change for incarcerated families?

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has instituted video visitations. Some feel this could be a lower cost and a more humane way to connect incarcerated people with loved ones and aid reintegration with the outside world, but others worry it could end in-person visits.

Naomi Blount Wilson
After I heard about the virtual visits, I really wish that they did the virtual visits while I was on the inside…

Nicole Franklin
Naomi Blount Wilson was serving a life sentence in Muncy, a state prison in Pennsylvania. After 37 years, her sentence was commuted by Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman and his team.

Naomi Blount Wilson
And now I am employed with his office and I’m a commutation specialist. So my job is to try and help those that are deserving to come home and give them that second chance.

Nicole Franklin
Pennsylvania instituted video visits — also described as virtual visits — on March 19, 2020. Blount Wilson had been released the previous year. She shares how the technology would have changed her experience with in-person visitation in some significant ways.

Naomi Blount Wilson’s life prison sentence in Pennsylvania was commuted after 37 years by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. She now is a commutation specialist with his office, and she remembers the degradation of preparing for in-person prison visits, and the expense of long-distance calls.

Naomi Blount Wilson
I hate what I had to go through just to have a visit. You know — stripping butt naked and spreading my cheeks, coughing, and, it was just degrading. So that part I really hated, and so many others did as well. You know you fixed your hair. Well, I don’t have any hair, but I did at that time. But you fix your hair, and some of the officers would make you take your hair down after you fix it for a visit. Really just difficult. At one point,  my parents lived in New Jersey. And of course, Muncy is in Pennsylvania. So for me to make one 15-minute phone call cost me $10.

Robert Pezzeca
Pennsylvania is doing free virtual visits, one per week, and then one weekend per month. You’re allowed five total a month. It’s the same way as to contact visits, five total a month.

Nicole Franklin
Robert Pezzeca is currently serving life in prison.

Robert Pezzeca
I am in my 24th year in a Pennsylvania state prison sentence to life without parole. In Pennsylvania, that means you will die in prison. My mother died of cancer in 2017. And my dad died just nine months later after my mom. Had this technology been available to us back then, I would have been able to see my parents before they died. So we were absolutely amazed when this system was brought into the prison, and we were told that we’re not being charged for virtual visits. 

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Robert Pezzeca
Each visit is 45 minutes in length. But with over 2200 prisoners in almost each facility, each prison has only four visiting machines for virtual visits. So many of the prisoners are unable to get visits because so many others are signing up and you’re basically competing for a spot. Four machines, 13 total visits on each machine per day. That’s approximately 364 visit slots per week. In a prison where 2,200 inmates are fighting for visits, over 1800 prisoners are unable to see their families using this new system.

I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to get a visit from my family every month. I’ve seen my daughter who lives in another state and doesn’t drive. So this is my only way to parent and see my child and remain connected with her in her life. I’ve been able to see my family in Italy, family that I’ve never met before. I’ve seen their children, their farms, animals, the beautiful Italian scenery. I’ve seen friends and family from all over the country who are unable to travel to my state. We love these virtual visits. But our greatest fear is that the Pennsylvania prison system will use this as an excuse to end all contact visits forever. 

I last saw my daughter on Aug. 4, 2019. And I every day wonder to myself ‘was that the last time I will ever hold and kiss my child again?’ And we all ask ourselves: Will the Pennsylvania DOC take away our chances to parent our children? Will they end all contact visits forever? It’s a really scary thought for most of us.

“I last saw my daughter on Aug. 4, 2019,” says Robert Pezzeca, who is serving a life prison term in Pennsylvania. “And I every day wonder to myself ‘was that the last time I will ever hold and kiss my child again?’ And we all ask ourselves: ‘Will the Pennsylvania DOC take away our chances to parent our children? Will they end all contact visits forever?’ “

Rep. Christopher Rabb
Mr. Pezzeca’s concerns are fair ones. And he’s not the first person to mention that. They’re all forms of retaliation and it’s not specific to the Department of Corrections. There’s a very adversarial nature to many structures in our society.

Nicole Franklin
Representative Christopher Rabb is the State Representative for the 200th Legislative District of Pennsylvania, in Northwest Philadelphia.

Rep. Christopher Rabb
Technology and these types of opportunities can be used and misused. So it’s entirely reasonable that it can be misused when you have a power dynamic that is so authoritarian. Now, part of that is, you have a special job when you are supervising an incarcerated population, and there are safety concerns. But there’s also psychological manipulation. And as someone who seeks to decarcerate our society, over time, his concerns are legitimate. Retaliation is real, just like there’s retaliation in my sphere — in the political and government sphere. 

I’ve visited seven state prisons in four and a half years. I would have visited more if it weren’t for the pandemic. We’re talking about 40,000 people in cages across Pennsylvania. And we actually have the highest number of people who have been sentenced to life without parole. Another term for that, of course, is death by incarceration. Philly is overrepresented in our state prisons, and I believe the figure was around 30% of the 40-ish thousand people who are incarcerated across the state come from Philly. 

I have a neighbor who was locked up in a cage for 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit. In a box for 23 hours a day. He was on death row for a crime he did not commit; he was robbed of his liberty, he was robbed of his dignity and humanity. And then they just let them go? As though “Oh, my bad.” What is our responsibility as a society, as a state government? So this is what we have to do, and virtual visitation could be the tip of the spear towards other things that allow that reintegration to happen in a meaningful way. And when it doesn’t happen — which is the norm — who pays for the social cost, the externalities of failed rehabilitative system? We do as taxpayers, we do as a society. So this is a really good investment. It seems small. But it’s indicative of so many other things that need to change.

Naomi Blount Wilson
You know, it really would have helped me because my mother had a stroke. And so she couldn’t walk or talk. So it would have been just wonderful had I been able to see her and her be able to see me, because she passed away before I came home. So it would have just been — oh, it would have just been a Godsend for me.

Robert Pezzeca
It’s basic human decency, and it should be a human right. And it’s not just for me. Also, when you parent a child, and most prisoners have children. Incarcerated parents — their children, without proper parenting, most of the kids will follow in their parents’ footsteps and wind up in prison themselves. And it’s very difficult parenting from prison, but visitation makes it so much easier and better for us. 

A friend of mine in here named William Abbott — we call him “Cool Pop” — he was a 68-year-old lifer — sentenced to die in prison. And he came back from a virtual visit one day, crying, and I asked him what was wrong. And he said, “I got to meet my grandchildren for the first time.” Sadly, he died of the coronavirus this year, and… 

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Robert Pezzeca
But we were thankful that he got to see his family and his grandchildren before he passed away.

“Virtual visitation could be the tip of the spear towards other things that allow that reintegration to happen in a meaningful way,” says Pennsylvania State Representative Christopher Rabb. “And when it doesn’t happen — which is the norm — who pays for the social cost, the externalities of failed rehabilitative system? We do as taxpayers, we do as a society. So this is a really good investment. It seems small. But it’s indicative of so many other things that need to change.”

Rep. Christopher Rabb
One of the benefits of virtual visitation is it disproportionately and positively benefits folks who are not of means. So if you’re a shift worker — you have a brother or a loved one who’s inside — you can commune with them virtually, without having to drive four, five hours. And the other thing too, for the population is overwhelmingly Black — and if their loved ones are overwhelmingly Black — they’re driving through terrain to get to a prison in rural Pennsylvania, that is a little scarring. I can say that, as a Black person. You get into rural parts of the state, and you don’t see any Black folk. And sometimes you do not feel so welcomed. And there’s a lot of folks, regardless of race, who are urbanites who are not used to leaving the city. And so it’s a daunting experience. It’s also expensive, you gotta gas up the car — if you even have a car. If you don’t have a car, how are you visiting someone halfway across the state? 

When you’re reconnecting folks — and you’re actually encouraging connection — you’re increasing a sense of belonging. Why does that matter? Because the vast majority of people in our state prisons across our Commonwealth are going to be released, and are going to be released almost certainly to the communities from which they were plucked. And they need to have a smooth transition. And that requires socialization — socialization with folks who aren’t fellow inmates, folks who are not prison guards. So we’re talking about creating more opportunities to build — what I’ve called for years — community wealth. So we need to remove any barriers, we need to make it free, we need to make it accessible, we need to make it frequent. I know there are logistical issues, there’re cost issues — but if you look at what kind of affirmative investment this is, in this population, it needs to be a priority.

Nicole Franklin
For iPondr, I’m Nicole Franklin. 

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Nicole Franklin

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