New York State’s illogical and short-sighted decision in 2011 to save $1.5 million by eliminating a bus service that brought families to visit their loved ones – totaling 56,000 people in 2011 -- in NYS prison facilities is a quintessential example of the idiom, ‘penny wise, pound foolish’.
This long-standing program provided free monthly bus service to the state’s prisons, many of which are over 100 miles from New York City and other urban areas, and inaccessible by public transportation. (Other bus services departed from upstate communities to assist family members visit their loved ones incarcerated closer to NYC.)
Before the program became a victim to partisan budgetary politics, it served as a prime example of “‘low-investment” with “high returns.”.
Ask many of the formerly incarcerated men and women currently enrolled in The Fortune Society’s programs what their motivation was to change their lives, and a significant number of them will cite their relationships with a loved one as the impetus behind their drive to reinvent themselves.
Most formerly incarcerated men and women, when describing how they clutched at hope while in prison, cite visits from family members as their beacon of light while living in what one client calls “factories of despair.”
Moreover, for a large number of New York families, family prison visits are essential to maintaining parental bonds. According to research by the Osborne Association, New York State is home to over 100,000 children with a parent who is currently incarcerated. In Fortune’s Family Services Program, many of the children of current and formerly incarcerated people point to the relationship they built with their father or mother while he or she was incarcerated as the reason for their own success.
It was the glue that held the relationship together.
What’s more, much of the recent research on this issue demonstrates That strong family relationships prevent recidivism and builds communities. A study by the Vera Institute of Justice shows that children who visit incarcerated parents have higher self-esteem and IQ scores and fewer behavioral problems than those who did not.
A 2012 study by The Urban Institute, Families and Reentry: Unpacking How Social Support Matters, found that family members have strong and positive relationships with their formerly incarcerated relatives and highlights how strong community support can positively impact recidivism.
The importance of family is evidenced by the National Reentry Resource Center, a federally funded project of the Council of State Government which provides training and technical assistance to hundreds of Second Chance Act grantee organizations who are offering reentry services./ An entire section on their website is devoted to the importance of families, defining family support as a ”key factor in successful transition.”
In addition, correctional administrators have always maintained that robust programs for people in prison are a way to ensure the safety of their front-line officers and civilian staff.
Simply put, people behave themselves when they are engaged in programming or if they have something valuable to lose from disruptive behavior. A recent Associated Press article about the issue pointed to a study conducted in Washington that showed that people in jail and prison who received regular family visits were six times less likely to commit prison violations.
Even those who are willing to ignore the value of the program and instead oppose the reinstatement of the initiative for partisan reasons admit the value of the visitation program.
A recent editorial in the Press Republican, which enthusiastically opposed the reinstatement of the program, stated “[i]t makes sense that continued contact would give imprisoned people a better foundation — and more hope — for an improved post-release life. It went on to say that visits from family keep their spirits up while they are still in prison,” before launching into a flimsy argument about why it’s not fair to support the program with taxpayer dollars.
Some opponents cite the anticipated expansion of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision "tele-visiting" program as a reason to feel comforted that the loss of the program won’t translate into diminished visits between people in prison and their families.
However, clients polled at The Fortune Society say that the tele-visits are impersonal, often fraught with technical glitches, and inconsistently offered. One Fortune Society client with a son who is currently incarcerated at Auburn Correctional Facility said that the elimination of the program was “devastating” for him and his family because trips upstate were unaffordable. ”
He and his wife “relied on those visits to provide [their] son with hope, optimism, and support,” the client told us.
The Correctional Association of New York (CA) has spearheaded an on-line petition to urge lawmakers to reinstate funding for this valuable program. The Fortune Society’s David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy applauds the CA for taking the lead on this important issue.
New York State should immediately reconsider the 2011 decision to eliminate this important program which benefits multiple stakeholders, and reinstate the bus program.
Glenn Martin is Vice President of Development and Public Affairs; Director of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at The Fortune Society, Inc. He welcomes comments from readers.