Working Past COVID: Families of the Incarcerated plead for in-person visits

For those behind bars, a visit from a family member or friend can make serving time bearable. In-person visits allow children to develop relationships with their incarcerated parents and allow couples to strengthen their bond. Prolonged visitations between young children and their parents can have negative long-term effects according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Regardless of how important visitation are the Washington State Department of Corrections has put visitation on hold for over a year in the name of safety. Despite DOC’s most recent report claiming there are only 10 active COVID-19 cases among the incarcerated, family members are continually being denied in-person visitation.

As COVID-19 cases were starting to be reported in Washington State departments of the state government including the Department of Corrections reacted with a set of guidelines. Of these guidelines recommended by the Center of Dieses Control are to wear a mask, social distance, and increase sanitation. Limiting social gatherings was and still is highly recommended in the battle against coronavirus, but according to inmates and families of inmates, that’s not always possible in a prison environment.

As of April 12, 2021, the Washington State Department of Corrections has reported 6,201 positive cases of COVID-19, 10 active cases, 6,117 recovered cases, and 14 deaths. One of the largest outbreaks took place at Airway Heights Correctional Center near Spokane. Inside the prison, there have been 1,671 confirmed cases and 5 deaths.

Matthew Walker is an inmate at Airway Heights, since the restrictions were put into place he’s only been allowed to communicate with his wife Kehaulani over the phone or video calls.

“You know when you see your wife every weekend for a year for three years and all of a sudden you don’t get to see them at all it’s shocking, it shocks you. It’s hard to get used to that,” said Walker.

READ: Coronavirus update: Benton & Franklin Counties hit 27k cases

It’s believed the over 6 thousand inmates who contracted COVID-19 were infected by staff members.

“Because none of us were infected. We can’t get it. We’re in here. It doesn’t come to us unless they bring it to us,” said Walker.

So to limit the spread safety protocols like extra cleaning, COVID screenings, and inmate isolation or quarantine were put into action. Some believe the departments’ actions were a little too late and ineffective since the virus was already spreading in multiple prisons across the state. Members of the Families of the Incarcerated continue to express their anger, disappointment, and concerns in fear their loved one would be next to die from the disease.

“He did not get a death sentence and they allowed 13 more people to die, That is on their hands,” said Gwen McIlveen.

After a year of only allowing inconsistent video and phone calls, it’s taken a toll on the young children whose parents are behind bars.

“I’ve done everything I can before COVID to really make that bond and really get that going. So, this whole year with this very minimal contact and stuff it’s quite damaging,” said Mckyndree Rogers, FOTI.

During a bi-weekly virtual town hall members of DOC get a chance to respond to the Families of the Incarcerated concerns. This is their response to visitation on March 30th, 2021.

“As the department watches the cases of COVID increase in the communities in which the states correctional facilities are located, we know visitation will reopen, we want visitation to reopen as of today the department does not have a date for reopening visitation,” Jeremy Barclay, DOC Spokesman.

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Other states say in-person visiting can happen once vaccines have been offered to the inmates and staff, but according to members of FOTI, not everyone here wants the shot.

“We’re stuck! Our loved ones haven’t gotten the shots they should have gotten so far. Enough of them aren’t willing to take them because there has been insufficient information given out about them and we have staff who are not willing to take the vaccines,” Kristin, FOTI

“I talk to a lot of families and I want DOC to know we are suffering and this is so painful to not be able to touch our loved ones. For that to be the explanation that you gave me, is not an explanation, it’s just not acceptable,” said Kehaulani Walker, FOTI.

Representative Jenny Graham (R-WA) says she will support legislation aimed at helping families of the incarcerated reunite with their loved ones.

DOC leadership has continually declined their invitation to each virtual town hall.

Make sure to tune into KAPP KVEW Local News at 6 PM for the continued coverage of Working Past COVID: What is the new normal? — a limited series.

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