Jennifer Ayala hasn’t seen her husband, Carlos, who is incarcerated at Garner Correctional Institution since late February due to visiting restrictions as the coronavirus pandemic started to spread.
After months of often frustrating emails to state Department of Correction staff, Ayala was alerted through Twitter Thursday that visits would start soon. Friday morning, DOC officials announced that non-contact social visits for family members would resume on Oct. 15.
There are new protocols in place. Visitors must make arrangements 72 hours in advance by following the instructions on the DOC website for the specific facility where the inmate is housed. Temperature checks and health screenings will be conducted before the visit can take place. The DOC indicated in a press release that all visitors must bring and wear a mask. If a visitor tests positive for COVID-19 after being at a prison, the DOC should be notified immediately.
The news brings an end to a long haul for people like Ayala, Ashley Turner, who has a loved one incarcerated, and Deb Martinez whose brother Isschar Howard is serving a life sentence for two New Haven murders.
“It’s very bittersweet,” said Turner who learned this week that her loved one must quarantine for 14 days because a staff member in his unit recently tested positive for COVID-19. “For inmates, they never have touch unless they are being patted down, they never have hugs,” Turner said. “I wish there was a way that we share a brief hug if we both were wearing masks and there were temperature checks, but I get it. This has been a long time coming.”
Martinez understands that protocols needed to be put in place to keep inmates safe during the pandemic. Her brother is a mentor in the specialized T.R.U.E. unit which provides rehabilitation for young men through extensive counseling and other program activities.
“I do miss him and I want to go back,” Martinez said. “Not having visits is really detrimental to their mental health long term. It also impacts their behavior. Human beings were born to have connection.”
It has been frustrating at times for family members who have heard repeatedly from their loved ones that visits would resume shortly only to be disappointed, Martinez said.
But she also believes the DOC was working on the visitation plan. “You have to think about how much work was put in by the ACLU and family members to keeping our loved ones safe from COVID,” Martinez said. “I would rather wait and know I’ll have that visit.”
Martinez recommends that people print out and bring their email confirmation that indicates they were approved to visit when they make the trip.
“I truly understand how difficult it has been for offenders and their loved ones not to have been able to see each other face-to-face during the pandemic,” DOC Commissioner Designee Angel Quiros said. “The resumption of visits has been a top priority of mine, but we have to take every precaution possible to make sure we continue to keep the virus at bay.”
Seven inmates have died from COVID-19 and 1,558 have tested positive for the disease since March, DOC officials said. Currently there are 23 inmates who are recovering from COVID-19 and one symptomatic inmate, officials said.
The agency has drawn fire from advocates and family members for the way the pandemic was handled. The Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union sued the DOC twice, once in state court and once in federal court, to get better cleaning and personal hygiene protocols in place, including more social distancing and the release of medically fragile inmates.
The DOC is now addressing the conditions under an agreement in the federal lawsuit. Officials are also working to provide video visits, especially for those who are unable to make the trip to a prison for a social visit. That initiative likely will take another month to get off the ground, the DOC said.
Martinez has been making it a point to instruct families on how to properly apply to visit their loved ones because the DOC website provided contradictory information. In recent days, each facility had posted detailed instructions on how to set up a visit through an email process while still stating that social visits were cancelled indefinitely.
“There was conflicting information and it can be very confusing for people who aren’t tech savvy,” Martinez said.
Ayala said she received “snarky” emails in response to her requests for information on visitation. One email referred to her husband and “your inmate,” she said. “He’s not my inmate, he’s my husband,” she said.
It’s a six-hour round trip from where she lives in New York to see her husband at Garner. He was hospitalized during the pandemic after a seizure, she said. “I want to see my husband in person so I can see if he’s okay,” Ayala said.