Jails and prisons are suspending visits to slow COVID-19. Here’s what advocates can do to help people inside.
Send our letter to your local jail, asking them to make video and phone calls free.
As jails and prisons across the country suspend in-person visits to slow the spread of COVID-19, families are being rapidly cut off from their incarcerated loved ones. Phone calls and video calls are now the only option for anxious families trying to stay in touch. It’s more important than ever that these calls be available at no cost.
We prepared a template letter for local advocates fighting to preserve family contact in jails during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates are encouraged to customize our letter as needed and send it to their county sheriff or jail warden or administrator. The full text of the letter is below.
Dear [Sheriff/Warden name],
Your office recently took the step of [suspending/restricting] in-person visitation at [jail name] to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While there is no question that in-person visitation can be risky at this time, incarcerated people and their families must be able to communicate in order to endure this trying, confusing, and constantly evolving pandemic.
We are writing to request your leadership in protecting incarcerated people and their loved ones by providing phone and video calls free of cost for at least thirty days – as sheriffs have done in the past on special occasions, such as Christmas, and as has been recommended by prosecutors nationwide. Other counties, such as Shelby County, Tennessee, have already taken this simple and critical step.
As you know, there is a general panic as cases of COVID-19 spread. Incarcerated people’s loved ones are even more likely to be concerned. Correctional facilities are filled with people with chronic illnesses and complex medical needs; these people are at a particularly high risk for serious complications from infections like COVID-19. Moreover, it can be difficult for correctional facilities to prevent unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, which also put people at risk for COVID-19.
While the decision to halt visits may be best for public health reasons, it puts loved ones in a bind. Families are forced to check in with their incarcerated loved ones by paying for phone or video calls. But incarcerated people and their loved ones are disproportionately low-income, and likely to be employed in fields most impacted financially by social distancing. Unless you make changes, families will likely have to choose between purchasing essential groceries or a phone call with Mom or Dad.
If [jail name] has a welfare fund for incarcerated people or has otherwise collected commissions from the fees charged for communication services, instituting a policy of free calls would be the best immediate use of that funding. You may even discover unexpected benefits to a temporary policy of free calls: For example, increased communication with loved ones has been shown to reduce misconduct in facilities by lowering anxiety and tension. Stability may be one reason jurisdictions like New York City have shifted to free phone calls permanently.
With tensions running high in [jail name] as well as in our communities, waiving the costs of phone and video calls is a simple step your office can take to provide comfort to families and protect public safety, both in and outside of the jail. Thank you for your attention to this matter.