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STRICT COVID-19 REGULATIONS ON PRISON VISITS CREATE ANGT FOR FAMILIES | OPINION

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in 2020, inmates serving time across the state have had a small window of time to visit with family and friends. As COVID-19 restrictions for the public were relaxed, and mask mandates dropped, frustration grew among the New Jersey inmates as harsh lockdowns continued in prisons. 

The reason for the denial of family visits by the custody staff at the regular prison unit representative meetings, called the ‘Tier-Rep Meetings,” is because Gov. Phil Murphy decided to remove them from the prison schedule. 

“He’s all over the news maskless and he won’t let me see my kids,” complained one prisoner representative during a recent meeting. Don’t miss the best in editorials, opinion columns and commentary from NJ.com writers. Add your email here: 

After canceling visits for another six months, the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) now has a limited visit schedule causing the prison populace to celebrate. So, the resumption of visits was well-received by the population. 

But, for the inmates from out of state or those who are here from another country with families living overseas, the NJDOC’S visit restrictions continue to be a cause of extreme frustration. 

In late March, inmate Kleeber Cordova wrote home to Ecuador to notify his family that he would finally be able to see them after nearly three years. For Cordova, this meant more than just sitting face-to-face with his loved ones since the NJDOC does not allow any of its prisoners to place international calls. It was the only opportunity for Cordova to converse with his family.

The process for a visit is difficult and expensive for prisoners such as Cordova and, in most cases, impossible. First, after securing the funding, which is not an easy feat since many family members come from poor backgrounds, they must apply for a Visa, purchase tickets and find a hotel and local transportation. Unfortunately, Cordova’s parents could not get a Visa, but his uncle, aunt and cousin were able to get Visas to travel to New Jersey. 

Due to his lack of English, Cordova asked a fellow prisoner, Michael Doce, to help him write to the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) administration to schedule an out-of-state extended visit. Doce had to notify the administration in advance about Cordova’s family traveling from Ecuador. 

He also had to inform them about their arrival date to secure a visit approval. Doce requested a visit for two consecutive days, Saturday the 23rd and Sunday the 24th, which is a typical practice when a prisoner’s loved ones are traveling from a far destination. Special permission is extended upon a written request to the administration for out-of-state visitors. This means they don’t need to be on the regular visit list. 

Cordova waited nearly 20 days for the NJSP administration to respond, but no one replied. Once again, Doce contacted NJSP’S Social Services on Cordova’s behalf to seek assistance. 

Four days before Cordova’s family’s scheduled arrival, the NJSP administration informed him that he would not be granted an extended visit due to COVID-19 restrictions. To make the matter even worse, they told him that only two adult visitors could visit on one of the requested days and only for an hour. 

NJSP extended no courtesy to Cordova’s family and informed them that they would have to call 48 hours before the visit to schedule an actual appointment. 

It was not easy for Cordova to choose two family members out of the three because his family had to scrape together a large sum of money for travel expenses, which was a monumental financial undertaking for them. 

Cordova’s family doesn’t speak English and needed help with pre-registering for a visit. So, once again, Cordova asked Michael Doce to help. 

Cordova was stressed and told Doce that he didn’t want his family to come to visit him anymore. “It’s not worth it, all this for one hour. I just want them to forget about me.” But, with Doce’s encouragement, he continued the process. 

Doce and his family helped Cordova’s family members. Finally, Cordova’s visitors were registered for a visit on Sunday. 

On the scheduled day, Cordova’s visit call-out never came. Unfamiliar with New Jersey, Cordova’s family members got lost and could not make the registration cutoff time and lost their visitation appointment.

NJSP administration has a cutoff time because there is a 60-person visit hall capacity. The registration deadline ensures that whoever arrives first gets to come in. However, the registration deadline is supposed to be flexible and is subject to staff and visitation supervisors’ discretion — unfortunately, they offered no options to Cordova. 

Any family member of a prisoner in the care of NJDOC can recite a list of constant struggles, humiliations, attitudes, and hindrances they routinely encounter when trying to visit an incarcerated relative. 

As a strict visit limitation on the prison population continues, the NJDOC only allows two adult visitors and two children per visit. 

It remains to be seen what the long-term plan for visits to the New Jersey prisons will be in the COVID-19 era. Until the state authorities admit that this virus is here to stay, visits will most likely be seasonal and cyclical, causing more angst within the NJDOC-run institutions and families outside. 

In the meantime, prisoners will miss seeing their kids grow up and their parents grow old while the rest of the world moves on. 

Tariq MaQbool is a contributing writer at the Prison Journalism Project and maintains Captive Voices.com, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. His work has been published in The Marshall Project, NJ Star-Ledger, Slant’d magazine and The News Station. He is incarcerated in New Jersey.

– By Michael J. Doce and Tariq MaQbool

-Originally posted by NJ.com

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