By the time you read this, the New York State legislature will have probably passed its 2017-18 budget. The budget is about $152 billion, but there’s a relatively tiny $2.6 million cut Governor Andrew Cuomo quietly buried inside that’s worth noticing. Cuomo’s cut would eliminate 39 jobs at New York’s 17 maximum-security prisons. But 39 is a small number, compared to the nearly 22,000 men and women held inside these prisons, serving long, often life sentences. These thousands of incarcerated people have families, friends, and children. Cuomo’s proposal would cut their prison visiting days, from seven to three a week.
I live with Laura, who spent over 14 years in high-security prisons. When she heard about Cuomo’s visiting-day cut, she started working maniacally to overturn it. Within groups like Release Aging People in Prison/ RAPP and Challenging Incarceration, Laura’s attended meetings, press conferences, spoken to state legislators. She also promotes — obsessively — a petition against the cut, to be delivered to Cuomo before the budget vote. She’s hoping at least 5,000 people will sign it. So far, 4,150 have.
Laura’s emailed this petition to countless lists and individuals. At home she breaks off conversations to search her iPad for the URL that will tell her how many people signed in the last four minutes. She’s wrecked scheduled TV viewings of “Veep” reruns to tweet it to new lists. Checking this petition is the first thing she does in the morning; the last thing at night. Why must I compete with a cyber-petition? Why has Laura become nuts?, I ask her.
PERSPECTIVE: Snide Lines
“Because when I was in prison, visits were a lifeline,” Laura responded. “I couldn’t be at my father’s bedside when he was dying, or at his funeral. But at least I was able to see Pop in his last years before he became ill. There’s no way you can do that over the phone or a video camera. Visiting with friends, family, I kept my humanity. I didn’t feel like a piece of garbage dumped in a cell. I’m fixated on this stupid petition because it’s a way to channel my rage about how powerlessness I feel to protect the people I love in prison.”
I’m now motivated to gather talking points rebutting Cuomo’s cut. Studies show that prison visits (a) reduce disciplinary infractions; (b) aid rehabilitation; (c) help those released reenter society, while (d) reducing recidivism. New York State has surpassed most states in giving families access to incarcerated loved ones; it also leads in lowering crime rates. Cutting visiting days would jeopardize this record, while the $2.6 million saved represents less than 1/1000th of the Department of Corrections $3 billion budget — increased this year by $6 million.
Currently, there are about 105,000 children in New York State with parents in prison or jail. They’re mostly children of color; virtually all from poor families. “People are sentenced to prison for years,” said Laura. “That’s their punishment; they’re not supposed to be mistreated. There’s a bill of rights for children of incarcerated people, which includes the right to touch and visit with your parent.”
There are always so many kids at prison visits. I know because Laura and I have visited friends in New York prisons for years. We see firsthand that visiting rooms are already overcrowded. Yet most families and friends of incarcerated people can afford to travel maybe once or twice a year to a prison, usually hundreds of miles upstate. Privileged people like Laura and me can afford to stay overnight in upstate motels (some sporting up to six evangelical TV channels). But everybody has to take time off work, pay for transportation, save up money for vending machine food in visiting rooms.
Once you get to a prison, you’re treated with the methodically inane, Trump-like logic of the penal system. Remove for inspection: jewelry, watches, shoes, jackets, belts, bras with metal underwire. Stare into camera flash for iris-scanning photo. Extend hand for stamp with “security” ink. Present hand with stamp — visible under ultraviolet light — to enter and exit visiting areas. This last is a stunningly shrewd way to insure that prisoners, such as our six-foot, black friend Herman, can’t escape by posing as two five-foot, white females like Laura and me.
This whole, sad routine enables you to spend sometimes up to six hours sitting across a metal table from a person dear to you, someone who goes through far worse than this every day, has for years, and will for more years. It means so much to talk, to touch hands for a second. If you’re five years old, it means the world.
Even given all seven days, you can be turned away if a visiting room is too crowded — no matter that you rode a bus all night to get there. Visiting only Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays would mean more people turned away, more stressed, noisy visits. Imagine trying to have a conversation at Grand Central Terminal during rush hour.
In 1973, New York started a free bus program for prison visits. But it was voted out in 2011 without much pushback from communities that were already being gutted by gentrification. This time there’s more fight.
So maybe as you read this, 5,000 people will have signed Laura’s petition. Maybe they’ll have persuaded the Legislature to remove the cut that Cuomo assumed would pass because it wouldn’t hurt the people who support him. Even then, all will not be well.
Because the lived realities underlying this petition will remain. Whether or not this cut passes, there’ll be similar proposals — not only from Cuomo — inside and out of the prison system. Sensible, belt-tightening policies, by which people already treated like cattle will be treated like meat. These are the incremental corrosions to our humanity that we must stop. Meanwhile, Laura’s petition is up to 4,279…
Susie Day is the author of “Snidelines: Talking Trash to Power,” published by Abingdon Square Publishing.