Relatives and friends will be permitted once again to begin visiting inmates in federal prisons as of Saturday, six months after such visits were ended over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal prisons officials said they were resuming family visits based on “the importance for inmates to maintain relationships with friends and family,” and some relatives of inmates lauded the decision.
“Their miserable circumstances need some relief,” Christy Balsiger, whose husband is in a federal prison in Texas, said, adding that family visits are vital for the psychological well-being of inmates.
But the coronavirus has hit prisons particularly hard, and some prison workers and families questioned whether outside visits — and the risk of further spread from inside and outside of facilities — were wise.
“I lost my mind when they said that,” said Aaron McGlothin, a warehouse foreman and union official at a federal prison in California. He said he feared that the resumption of visits would lead to more illness and death. “I was just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
There have been nearly 20,000 virus infections and 134 deaths among federal inmates and guards since the start of the pandemic, according to a New York Times database tracking infections in American prisons, jails and detention centers. The federal system currently has 1,813 active cases among inmates and 733 active cases among staff members, according to the authorities.
In a far broader array of correctional and detention facilities — federal, state and local — at least 226,320 inmates and guards have been infected and 1,321 have died, according to the Times database. Most state prison systems and local jails are continuing to bar family visits. Under the federal prison system’s new rules, no physical contact with visitors — including children — will be permitted, and guards will check the temperatures of visitors before they are allowed to enter.
Inmates and visitors will be required to wear face coverings and to maintain distance, either by partitions or by spacing people at least six feet apart.
The federal prison system “is committed to protecting the health and welfare of those individuals entrusted to our care, as well as our staff, their families, and the communities where we live and work,” the agency said in a statement.
Inmates and prison officials have said the inability of inmates to see loved ones — combined with the fear of becoming sick and having been largely restricted to cells or crowded dormitories — had exacerbated existing mental illnesses.
But not everyone is pleased with the return of in-person visits.
Mr. McGlothin, the federal prison employee in California, said that when he went to officials with concerns about the risks of renewed visits, he was told that the new partitions would help and that the plan would be safe.
“I said, ‘Safe for who?’” Mr. McGlothin said.
Even some families were reluctant.
Nina Schunck said that she and her daughter, an inmate at a federal prison in West Virginia, had discussed a visit but ultimately decided against it.
“She does not want me to go because she is afraid of transmission,” Ms. Schunck said. “They just had their first positive case there. So she’s worried about that on both counts — that people will bring it in, or that people will get it while they’re there.”
She added: “The timing is just weird to me because it’s still continuing to spread. There’s no stop — every day, another prison.”
At Butner federal prison in North Carolina, Barry Taylor, an inmate, said fears about extending a remarkably deadly six-month stretch at the prison had led inmates and families to decide visits were too risky. If inmates become infected, they are typically placed in isolation units or grouped with other ill prisoners and have limited access to showers, phone calls, hot meals, fresh air and exercise.
The Butner prison has had 1,047 infections of inmates and guards and 27 deaths. “We’re supposed to self-monitor and turn ourselves in to be quarantined if we feel sick,” Mr. Taylor wrote in an email. “Very few inmates will give up TV, commissary and rec for solitary confinement when we can treat ourselves with the same meds the BOP is providing in quarantine.”
Melissa Lynn McGee, an inmate at Carswell federal prison medical center in Texas, said she was recovering from the virus.
She said she feared that family visits would lead to widespread illness and plunge the facility back into the sort of desperation and chaos that marked the summer months. Six inmates have died at the prison and 547 have been infected.
“Even if the visitor doesn’t have a temperature doesn’t mean they haven’t been exposed in some way,” she said.
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