After not seeing her husband in person for 14 months, Las Vegas resident Nicole Tate was able to schedule an appointment to visit him at High Desert State Prison in May. But the visit won’t be the same as it was prior to the pandemic.
“There's a very real possibility that I'm not going to get to hug my husband for a very long period of time, when it's already been so long,” Tate, a member of the inmate advocacy group Return Strong, told The Nevada Independent a few days before her scheduled visit. “It’s honestly the most upsetting thing of it all.”
The Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) suspended visitation across prisons in March 2020 to protect staff and inmates from the spread of COVID-19. Since then, the coronavirus has swept through the state’s correctional facilities, resulting in more than 5,000 cases among staff and inmates and 53 deaths among prisoners; the department attributed some of the case growth to issues with its own staff, including burnout and COVID fatigue.
The department reopened visitation for inmates on May 1, with significant safety restrictions in place, including limits on the age of visitors, number of allowed visitors per inmate and physical contact between inmates and visitors. Those restrictions have left some Nevadans feeling reluctant to visit their incarcerated loved ones, but the agency has said the return to normal visitation depends on whether a significant majority of inmates within each of the state’s prisons becomes vaccinated.
At High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, inmates and their families were allowed to have a brief hug and kiss during visits before the pandemic, Tate said, but neither form of contact is allowed under the first phase of the visitation reopening plan. The original policy was so special for Tate, though, that she even had it tattooed on herself.
“They tell everybody ‘one brief hug, one brief kiss.’ That's how it is when you leave. That's all you get,” Tate said. “It sounds crazy that he actually had somebody draw it up, and it's tattooed right here. This is my life right here. It says ‘One BK, One BH’... That's how we've lived our life. And now the thing is, we can't even get that, you know, simple little things.”
Tate said the no-contact policy was not enough to keep her from going to see her husband, but for other families, the safety restrictions have posed significant challenges.
During the first phase of the reopening plan, there is a limit of two visitors per visit with an inmate, which means Jen Graham, a Reno resident and mother of four children whose husband is incarcerated at Stewart Conservation Camp in Carson City, is unable to bring her whole family to visit. Graham’s husband has also been unable to meet the couple’s youngest child who turned 1-year-old in April.
“I found out I was pregnant two weeks before he was arrested,” Graham said. “They don't have video visitation where he's at, so he hasn't even seen his little girl move at this point. And it's just — it's pretty hard.”
The department is limiting visitors to those ages 5 and up and is requiring birth certificates — NDOC excluded those under 5-years-old “due to their developmental ability to comply with mask requirements,” according to the department’s visitation website. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that children ages 2 and older wear masks in public.
Graham’s ability to bring all of her children to visit her husband is also curbed by limitations on the frequency of visits. Though the department’s visitation website states that a facility’s administration decides whether its inmates are allowed visits once every two weeks or once each month, 16 of the 17 department facilities, including Stewart Conservation Camp, are only allowing one visit per month. Tonopah Conservation Camp does not specify what frequency of visits its inmates are allowed.
“If we wanted to all go visit him at this point, we're unable to do that as a family,” Graham said. “Currently, two of our children are in Indiana. And so, if we were to fly two of them out here, they wouldn't even be able to visit at the same time.”
The restrictions have led to a low level of demand for appointments so far. On May 7, a spokesperson for the department wrote in an email that 173 visits have been scheduled, with another 183 pending approval, through the first 10 days of the application period. The department houses roughly 11,000 inmates.
The scheduling site for the department’s largest facility, High Desert State Prison, which has a capacity of more than 4,000 inmates, shows that the prison has the capacity to handle thousands of visitors in a month across a variety of sessions spread out over every day of the week. However, few visitation slots are shown as booked, and the site shows that the prison has zero out of 40 visitor slots booked so far.
Prior to the pandemic, visits were held on a first-come, first-serve basis — rather than scheduled — so the department does not keep past data on its visitor volume.
Visits are also confined to a single table with inmates and visitors separated by a transparent partition or six feet of distance — a restriction that can be burdensome for some families.
Misty Stewart, a Carson City resident whose son is incarcerated at an NDOC facility, said there is not much she can do to stop her 7-year-old grandson from wanting to hug his father after not seeing him for more than a year. But the department has ruled that “visitors and/or children who become unmanageable, disruptive or fail to comply with safety protocols will have their visit terminated.”
The department has also stated that children’s play areas, toys and games will be unavailable under the first phase of the plan, which can also make visitation more difficult for families. Stewart said that her son and grandson were previously able to find “ways to be creative and to play and have these parental moments.”
“There are times when he has tears, we get lots of tears because he misses him, and he doesn't understand,” Stewart said of her grandson. “Kids don't understand why they can't have contact, why they can't call whenever they want or why they can't call back after they've missed a call.”
Challenges for the incarcerated
Family members with incarcerated loved ones also said that the year without visitation has been a significant challenge for those inside Nevada’s prisons, and the department’s leadership has acknowledged that difficulty.
“While the 14-month suspension of visiting was necessary to limit the spread of the virus into our facilities, the NDOC recognizes the emotional toll it has taken on the spouses, children and friends of the offenders,” Charles Daniels, the department’s director, said in a statement. “We recognize the importance of the support each family provides to incarcerated individuals.”
Sylvia Reyes, a Reno resident whose son is an inmate at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, said that her son has experienced a lot of frustration over the suspension of visitation.
“It's been a battle for him to stay positive and to stay out of trouble because of the anger of not having the contact with the family,” Reyes said. “I get real upset and very emotional when it comes to it, because he is my only child, and it's real hard.”
Graham said that her husband also has struggled with being shut off from physical contact.
“The hardest thing, obviously, is not being able to meet his daughter yet,” Graham said. “He started crying on the phone, and he's like, it's just, it's hard not being able to see all of our kids at once.”
The vaccination effort
Under the department’s phased visitation reopening plan, inmates and visitors will not be allowed to have physical contact until the third phase of the plan, which will kick in when a facility reaches an 80 percent vaccination rate among its inmates. At that point, safety restrictions on visitation will be removed, and facilities will revert to the standard policy that allows for brief physical contact, such as a handshake, hug or kiss, just before and immediately after visits.
However, some families have expressed concern that it would be a long time before that 80 percent threshold is met at certain facilities, such as High Desert State Prison.
In a press release on May 4, the department announced that more than 45 percent (5,187) of its roughly 11,000 inmates across the state have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The inmate vaccination rate has more than doubled since April 20 when the department’s reported numbers showed less than 20 percent of inmates had been at least partially vaccinated.
Some smaller facilities are already on their way to passing the 80 percent vaccination rate threshold, according to the press release, including Casa Grande Transitional Housing and Northern Nevada Transitional Housing. Although those two facilities combined hold fewer than 250 inmates, according to 2020 data from the department, 100 percent of the inmates at both facilities have been at least partially vaccinated.
Despite the increasing vaccination numbers, signs of hesitancy remain. At the department’s largest facility, High Desert State Prison, just 24 percent of inmates have received at least the first dose, as of May 4. Additionally, Reyes and Stewart both said their sons did not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“As far as the COVID shot, my son denied it,” Reyes said. “He doesn't want to have it because of all the negative information they put on the news, blood clots, adverse reactions.”
Nicole Williams, a Dayton resident whose husband is an inmate at Warm Springs Correctional Center, noted that some inmates may be wary of the side effects of the vaccine.
“Another thing I think that a lot of the inmates talk about is the effects. They're in prison. We're out here if we get the shot, and we don't feel well,” Williams said. “To have to deal with it in there and the effects, and then even be charged for Tylenol or ibuprofen … That's just ridiculous.”
The effects of the public health crisis inside the prison system have created some distrust between inmates and the department. Reyes’s son, Graham’s husband and Williams’s husband each contracted COVID-19, and two of those cases came during the big outbreak at Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City — at one point in November, 90 percent of the facility’s population had tested positive for the virus.
Tate, who is an intensive care unit nurse, said she decided to get the vaccine after speaking with an infectious diseases specialist, and she thinks inmates would benefit from the opportunity to ask health professionals more questions about the vaccine.
In a statement, Daniels, the department’s director, said he was proud of the vaccination effort so far, and NDOC also announced plans for 10 vaccine clinics at facilities across the state, including a clinic at High Desert State Prison.
“We are proud of our staff and grateful to our community partners for successfully vaccinating such a large group in a relatively short time,” Daniels said.
As vaccination numbers across NDOC facilities remain below the 80 percent threshold to move to the final phase of the visitation reopening plan, the department has enacted stringent visitation guidelines to protect the prison population from the spread of COVID-19.
Visitors are required to arrive at least 45 minutes before their scheduled visit, in order to take a rapid COVID-19 test. If visitors test positive or exhibit “flu-like or concerning symptoms,” they will be denied entry.
Additionally, the enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing and the prohibition of physical contact are all meant to prevent new COVID-19 cases within NDOC facilities.
Difficulties in communicating
Some families also face significant challenges in communicating with incarcerated loved ones.
In order to mitigate the negative impact of suspending visitation on March 7, 2020, the department provided inmates with free phone calls. Calls placed to numbers inside the United States are typically 11 cents per minute for prepaid calls and 14 cents per minute for collect calls. Even with the free calls, though, issues with the phone systems within prisons can make calling a difficult mode of communication for many families.
Reyes said that because of the limited number of phones at Northern Nevada Correctional Center, some inmates may have to wait hours in order to place a call, and if a call is dropped or there is some disruption, then that allowed call time is lost.
“How does that compensate? I mean it, for not being able to talk to your mom, your wife, your child,” she said. “Some of these guys, they've got little kids, they've got new marriages, they've got young wives who don't understand this, and it's very frustrating. ‘Why aren't you calling me? Why aren't you this? Why aren't you that?’”
Safety protocols can also lead to a loss of communication for extended periods. Graham said that she didn’t talk to her husband for a few weeks after he contracted COVID-19.
For Williams, the phone calls simply are not enough to make up for physical contact and in-person visitation.
“A voice is only one thing,” she said. “To be able to physically see somebody, even if it is once a month, I think that resonates.”