Technology helps incarcerated population maintain family ties
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
In this time of COVID restrictions, technology helps families connect with their incarcerated loved ones. Innovation, planning and infrastructure came together to offer video visits at all 35 CDCR adult institutions by the end of 2020, with plans to bring video visiting to conservation camps early next year.
Visiting has always played a vital role in rehabilitation and reintegration.
With Helen Pelayo’s husband incarcerated at Folsom State Prison, the lack of in-person visits has been hard. She said the video visits help make things a little easier.
“My video was short but wonderful. I didn’t realize how much I missed my husband until I saw him. It reminded me why I married him,” she said. “He said some of the inmates and their loved ones are really struggling (without visits). Visiting is so important. Having that contact is good for everyone’s mental health especially the children, and it gives hope to us all.”
CDCR video visits offer reassurance
Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) has been at the forefront of CDCR’s video visits. The facility was identified early on to be included in a pilot program to establish best practices and optimal equipment for video visits, said Lt. Angelo Gonzalez.
Michael Kendall, due to be released in a matter of months, said he was nervous for his Dec. 19 video visit.
“I’m so excited to see my family,” he said. He hadn’t had a visit in five years but the new video option gave him the ability to reconnect and help prepare for reintegration.
Linda Cabral, whose husband is incarcerated at Folsom State Prison, said she appreciated the time and effort that went into making the visits possible.
“I was extremely surprised how wonderful the experience was for both my husband and myself. No glitches and it was done very smoothly,” she said. “We were finally able to connect under these circumstances. COVID 19 is very serious and Video Visiting is eliminating any kind of dangers. I enjoyed our time together.”
Terrence Mullins, who is incarcerated at Folsom State Prison, agreed video visits are important.
“Video visiting was a great way to ensure that our families are safe, even though we get to talk to them through phone calls and hear they are OK,” Mullins said. “It meant more to see them and actually see they are OK. “
Herculean effort to connect 35 institutions
CDCR made the difficult, but necessary, decision to suspend visiting programs statewide on March 11. Since that time, the department has taken unprecedented steps to prepare and immediately respond to COVID-19 cases.
As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the community, it became clear that it could be some time before CDCR facilities are able to resume in-person visitation. CDCR decided to launch an innovative program to bring video visiting to all facilities. The direction was no small ask: implement the program in all 35 prisons in a very short turnaround time, at no additional cost.
Infrastructure and innovation
CDCR selected Kristin Montgomery, Deputy Director of Field Operations and Infrastructure Support, to lead the effort. She quickly put together a multidisciplinary group that crafted a plan of action – use the Webex platform to make the calls, enlist visiting staff at each institution to schedule emailed visit requests, set up computers in visiting stations throughout the state and stagger implementation at prisons – then refine the process as it was implemented. It felt, a member of her team said, like building an airplane that was already in flight.
“This project was important because of the value it would have to the incarcerated people in our institutions who have not seen their friends and families since the beginning of the pandemic,” Montgomery said. “The ability for incarcerated people to reconnect with their friends and families is most critical since these are the same people who will support them being successful in their future reintegration into society.”
Montgomery credited the team with the project’s success.
“The CDCR project team did amazing work to get this solution implemented quickly because we understood the value this technology would bring to our incarcerated people during this difficult time,” Montgomery added.
Visitation is a high priority
Connie Gipson, Director of CDCR’s Division of Adult Institutions, said visiting is a high priority.
“Even in these challenging times during the pandemic, CDCR recognizes the importance of family support for an incarcerated person during the incarceration period. In November, at five prisons, we resumed the visiting program by using a video visiting platform to connect the incarcerated person and their families,” said Director Gipson.
“By Christmas all institutions implemented video visiting. With this platform, the Department is able to unite the incarcerated person with his family while practicing social distancing and reducing the spread of COVID-19 through person-to-person contact. CDCR is dedicated to fostering healthy relationships between the incarcerated person and their family/community for a successful reintegration back into the community.”
Youth facilities added video visits in April
The Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) implemented video visiting in April (see the press release).
“We recognize the importance of visitation to the growth and rehabilitation of youth,” said DJJ Director Heather Bowlds. “So, we immediately increased already free phone calls and access to free stamps so youth could write to loved ones.”
DJJ staff decided technology was the best option.
“Internet based video communication is not new, but the speed in which information technology staff and DJJ staff integrated the needed hardware, software and training was unprecedented,” said Bowlds. “The launch of this valuable service is a testament to the drive and passion of DJJ and CDCR staff to help youth within our care during the COVID-19 emergency.”
Status of in-person visitation
The resumption of visits has been a top priority for CDCR, and the department will continue to work toward reopening safely, in collaboration with public health experts, in a way that is safe for all involved.
Learn more about video visiting at https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/visitors/.