In a recent nightmare, 8-year-old Jovina dreamt that her father got COVID-19. He was getting sicker, but she and her mother weren’t able to get there in time. “There,” in her father’s case, is a cell at the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville, California, nearly 300 miles from where she lives in San Jose.
In Jovina’s mind are a swarm of worries about her father’s welfare, her mother Benee Vejar reports. If an earthquake shakes the Bay Area, Jovina says, “What if the building crushes in on him?” When she sees him on one of their infrequent, short video calls, her worries spike about his well-being. She "flips out" if he removes his mask, repeatedly asks him to wash his hands, and tells him how she longs for his embrace, declaring on a recent call, “Daddy, I want to squeeze you so bad!”
Recently Jovina refused to touch her food, telling her mother, “I don’t want to eat. I’m not feeling so good today. I miss my Dad. When are we going to be able to see him?”
A short while of waiting and torment later, and after 15 months of not being near him, a joyous visit with her father took place in June. However, like other children with incarcerated parents in California and around the country, Jovina has no clear sense of when she will be with her father again.
In the last year and a half, Jovina has had to cope with the added strain of living through a global pandemic, which, until recently, shut down family visits altogether. But she was already contending with the unpredictable and overwhelming stress of being separated from her father because he is incarcerated.
Jovina is among an estimated 5 million children in the United States who have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their childhood, according to Child Trends. Experiencing separation from a parent due to incarceration has long been identified as a childhood trauma in the landmark Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. The study tied this and nine other types of childhood trauma to chronic health conditions in adulthood.
The separation is excruciating for parents as well. Philip Melendez of California, who was formerly incarcerated, echoed the feeling of despair.
“I did not see my family for a year and a half, and I felt myself slipping away,” he said earlier this year at a townhall meeting on family visitation led by California Attorney General and former Assembly member Rob Bonta. Melendez, who has been out of prison for 3 years after serving a 20-year sentence, said that family visitation was a lifeline for him: “[My family] kept me focused on what I needed to do to come home.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore the outsized toll that separation exacts on families with incarcerated loved ones.
It also prompted a coalition of prison rights groups to start chipping away at barriers to in-person visits among family members.
Their effort gave rise to a bill, AB990, known as the Family Unity Bill, which was passed by the California legislature in early September and has been sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature. At a panel discussion in April about AB990, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, whose parents were incarcerated for most of his childhood, talked about why he thinks the bill’s changes are needed.
“Children who have been left behind, children who have committed no crime, have a right to a relationship with our parents, have a right to get to know our parents, have a right to get to know the people who brought us into the world even if they have made serious mistakes,” Boudin said during the panel discussion. “But the way we respond and the way we treat people who commit crimes punishes the children and families as well.”
The Family Unity Bill highlights the rights of a child of an incarcerated parent “to speak with, see, and touch” their parent, to have a “lifelong relationship with their parent,” as part of a Bill of Rights created and first published by the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership in 2003. Specifically, AB990 will strengthen legal protections so that family members won’t be denied visits based on their own criminal history. The bill would also protect people in prison from being denied a visit from family for prison disciplinary reasons unrelated to the visit, and it would help protect visitors from being denied a visit with their loved one because of an inaccuracy or omission in a visit request form.
In a response to a query about AB990, Terri Hardy from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation replied that the department does not comment on pending legislation.
It’s not clear what additional recent efforts are underway to improve the rights to in-person visits, but a 2015 study of visitation in 50 states by Boudin and others shows that prison policies in most states do not view visits as a right.
“Because states uniformly consider visiting a ‘privilege,’ policies often limit prisoners' access to visitors as a sanction and may reward good behavior with greater access to visitation,” said the study, which appeared in the Yale Law and Policy Review. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2003 set the tone for visitation restrictions, including banning prisoners with two substance use violations from visits for at least two years.
In California, many requests for visits are met with denials due to what Rita Himes, a staff attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, calls a “dishonesty trap.” That’s when someone inadvertently omits requested information on their visitor’s application, such as any interaction with police no matter how long ago, and no matter how minor.
Christine Herrera unwittingly made that mistake. While applying for a visit around Thanksgiving in 2018 so she and her kids could see her husband, she forgot to mention that she had been pulled over at a DUI checkpoint about 15 to 20 years earlier. She received a citation for driving with an expired driver’s license.
At the time of the citation, the police impounded her vehicle, which she retrieved the next day. “I renewed my license immediately, went to court and received a reduced fine, and that was the end of it,” she said. Or so she thought.
All those years later, it took her three months to find out why she was denied a visit with her husband – the long-ago citation. She was perplexed, because she had never been in trouble aside from that. “I thought someone had stolen my identity,” she said.
Prior to COVID-19, Benee Vejar hadn’t been denied visits with her husband, although in the distant past a parking ticket she forgot to report delayed a visit. Fortunately, she said, she was able to work things out with the warden. “It was ridiculous,” she recalled.
“It’s taking advantage of people’s faulty memories and taking their visiting [away], which is a constitutional right,” Himes said. Her organization is part of the statewide coalition that has been pushing for passage of AB990.
Joanne Scheer knows firsthand just how wrenching a denial can be. In 2011 she and her husband were in the middle of a visit with their son Tony, who was at the California State Prison, Corcoran and just days away from being transferred to the Honor Yard/Progressive Program Facility, when, unbeknownst to all of them, Tony’s new cellmate was caught with drugs. “Even though his cellmate admitted that they were his drugs and that Tony had nothing to do with it, they still charged both of them,” says Scheer.
Scheer learned about this when she was on the freeway enroute to a visit the following weekend and received a call from the officer in charge of visiting. “He said, ‘You are not allowed to visit today, and you won’t be allowed to have visits for the next three years,’” recalled Scheer. Stunned and perplexed, Scheer asked the officer why and was told, “He was in the hole for [drug] distribution,” and that to learn more about it, she needed to talk to her son.
Scheer pulled off the freeway on to a dirt road and stumbled out of her car. “I literally just started screaming and crying,” she said. She called her husband and told him what happened. “We were dumbfounded and had absolutely no idea what was going on and why on Earth we wouldn’t be able to hold our son for three years. It was one of the most traumatizing things we’ve ever had to go through.”
Her son, who was 25 at the time, had been in prison for about 18 months. He had just been accepted into the Honor Yard, which offers education and community service programs to inmates who have no disciplinary history, but after the denial of that transfer and parental visits, he spiraled downwards. “He started using drugs,” said Scheer. “He started to disappear. He just gave up hope and thought, ‘What the hell, I’m never going to see my parents again.’”
Research shows that the benefits of family visits for people who are incarcerated are more than anecdotal. “Any visit reduced the chance of reconviction of a felony by 13% and the chance of parole revocation by 25%,” according to a 2012 study in the journal Corrections Today.
AB990 is also slated to remove a barrier that keeps family members from visiting relatives if they themselves have a criminal history.
“Every time I go and see my nephew, he asks how is his dad doing, can we go visit him,” said Bobbie Butts, whose brother – her nephew’s father -- has been in prison for the last nine years. Butts would like to take her nephew, who she says has special needs, to visit his father. “But because I have six prior felonies, I can’t take him,” said Butts.
At the same time, she tries to reassure her despondent nephew, telling him, when he asks about visiting his father, “We’re working on doing that.”
Some of the rights that once existed for prisoners were ended in 1996, Himes said, with the “lock ‘em up and throw the key away” mentality that was popular when former California Gov. Pete Wilson signed the “Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out” law.
But the harsh mindset that prohibits family members with criminal histories from visiting their relatives also has roots in a continuing trend in California and nationwide towards mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects Blacks and Latinos. Latinx children are twice as likely and Black children are five times more likely than white children to have an incarcerated parent, according to a report by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.
While AB990 addresses some of the barriers that prevent families and people who are incarcerated from seeing, holding and spending time with their loved ones, families in California and all over the country have a multitude of other barriers that also get in the way of visits.
“One thing that makes prison visiting often very difficult is simply the fact that many prisons are located in remote rural locations, far from the urban centers where most of the incarcerated people come from. So just getting to the prison is often difficult, and prohibitively expensive,” says David Fathi, the director of the ACLU National Prison Project based in Washington D.C.
“It may be that you have to drive a couple hundred miles. It may be you have to stay in a hotel. If visiting is only available on weekdays, or if visiting conflicts with your work schedule, you may have to take a day off without pay. These are all things that aren't intentional. No one is doing these things deliberately to make visiting difficult, but they certainly have an effect.”
Vejar, Jovina’s mom, agrees that all those costs add up when she makes the nearly 300-mile journey from San Jose to Susanville. She often pairs up with other families to share costs of hotels, food, and gas, but she sometimes has to sacrifice other necessities to make it happen. “Like if Jovina needs shoes, I’ll have to wait until the next month. Or I won’t pay the whole [utility bill]. I’ll set up a payment plan, and pay the minimum on credit cards,” Vejar said.
While she may have to cut corners, Vejar works hard to help her daughter have regular phone calls with her father. When they do have visits, Vejar and her daughter have created regular games and anchoring rituals. Research shows that contact with an incarcerated parent and “[being] able to spend time together as a family through play, conversation, or sharing a meal can also help mitigate children’s feelings of abandonment and anxiety,” according to a report by the Urban Institute.
Jovina ticks off a list of things she loves to do with her dad, including watching films together, playing card games and making breakfast. “He made me 5,000 quesadillas!” she exclaims, recalling her last visit in early June. And she has a ritual that she repeats each time when she arrives at the prison and sees her dad.
“Usually, when I see him, I run to him, and I jump and he catches me and carries me,” she says with a smile, her eyes brightening in memory.
But when Jovina thinks about the ride home after the visit, her face saddens, she turns away and falls into her mother’s arms for comfort. The timeline for when she’ll see her father again is uncertain, and recently advocates learned that the chances of the bill being signed into law this year are slim, said Himes.
“Obviously families are disappointed,” she said.
Citing the bill’s broad support by the legislature, and Gov. Newsom’s election victory on Sept. 14 against a Republican-led recall, Himes said, “We have an incredibly strong foundation to push forward on this law next year.”