‘Those regular visits were like heartbeats, helping to sustain, energize and strengthen our relationship until, exactly 13 years later, the last prison in which Joe resided disappeared from view as we drove together toward home.’


Joe Robinson and Sheila Rule

On October 3, 2003, we experienced the first of what would be hundreds of visits together in a New York State prison.  Those regular visits were like heartbeats, helping to sustain, energize and strengthen our relationship until, exactly 13 years later, the last prison in which Joe resided disappeared from view as we drove together toward home.

We’ve increasingly thought of those visits since COVID-19 began to rage across the state, forcing in mid-March the suspension of all prison visits. We’ve spoken our gratitude to God that Joe is home, and we’ve prayed that the suspension would be lifted soon for those we left behind, for whom visits remain like heartbeats. They include wives and husbands, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, friends and others held dear who travel long distances, bear financial hardship, endure the disrespect and capricious whim of prison staff—all for a few hours with their loved ones behind prison walls.

These families bring to vivid life the numerous studies that show how critically important in-person visits are to adjustment to prison, the successful return to society and, ultimately, public safety. They breathe life, too, into this message on the website of New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS):  “Research shows that incarcerated individuals who receive regular visits adjust much better once they are released from prison when the privilege is used to maintain positive relationships.”

DOCCS announced in May that visits would resume in August, but with harsh restrictions. For example, visits that were previously up to six hours long would be limited to two hours. The number of visitors would be limited to two, and they would have to register in advance. Touching would no longer be allowed.  The department also closed indefinitely the Family Reunion Program, which allows approved incarcerated men and women to spend nearly two days at a time with their loved ones in a private home-like trailer on prison grounds.  

It was as if officials at DOCCS had forgotten the message on the department’s own website. The Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ), a statewide advocacy group of families and individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, decided to remind DOCCS of the message, in a range of ways—from raising their concerns and their voices in front of Governor Cuomo’s  office in midtown Manhattan and protesting with a car caravan that circled DOCCS headquarters in Albany to pressing politicians to write a letter of support to the Governor and threatening an economic boycott. While AFJ understood the push by DOCCS for safety during the pandemic, it could not abide the department’s push for inhumanity.

When visits resumed in early August, after nearly five months, some restrictions had been eased. Visits are not limited to two hours. Up to three adults, and one child under the age of five, may visit at one time. Visitors and incarcerated people may give each other a brief hug at the start and end of each visit.  

AFJ and families statewide will continue the fight for humane visitation policies, primarily because they know what we know about those visits. The following are some of the immediate steps that DOCCS should take: 

– Expand the available visiting spaces

– Require guards to wear masks at all times including while working on the visit floor and interacting with visitors

– Restore the Family Reunion Program

– Resume processing marriage applications 

– Cease issuing disciplinary tickets for family members kissing each other during the visit 

– Provide visits seven days a week at all DOCCS facilities

– Issue a full supply of adequate PPE to all incarcerated people 

On a recent summer morning after eating breakfast together, as we always do, we decided to list some of the reasons the visits were so dear to us through all those years. Our list is long, and includes these thoughts:  The visits helped to instill a profound sense of connection to each other; deepened a feeling of shared purpose; allowed us to explore at length a broad range of topics, not only what was on our minds but what was in our hearts; offered the opportunity to demonstrate—in real time—our love, appreciation and affection for each other; allowed us to be emotionally supportive of each other in ways that letters and phone calls could not; provided space for Joe to feel unjudged in such a judgmental, punitive environment; signaled to DOCCS that there was someone who loved Joe and was paying close attention to his wellbeing; served as a way for Joe to stay in touch with his humanity; offered hope to us both.

The visits also helped us to clearly envision and work toward a beautiful future together. A beautiful future that we are living now, heartbeat by heartbeat.

Sheila is a writer and activist. Joe is an entrepreneur and the director of reentry services at a nonprofit law firm that represents indigent incarcerated people.