ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Advocates for nearly 56,000 New York inmates and their families have urged the state to resume free bus service to its prisons, saying visits have dropped since it was discontinued last year and the savings of $1.5 million doesn't justify the social cost.
In a report earlier this year, the Vera Institute of Justice cited a Washington state corrections study showing prisoners who received regular family visits were six times less likely to commit prison violations. The institute also pointed to a 2010 research paper in the journal Sociology Compass showing that children who visit incarcerated parents have higher self-esteem and IQ scores and fewer behavioral problems than those who don't.
Maxine King said she now has to pay $80 for rides to visit monthly and hasn't been able to afford bringing her three youngest children, all teenagers, to see their father since the free bus stopped. They used to get on it about every three months because it was always full leaving New York City. The trip to Attica was overnight.
"A lot of time it was difficult for us financially to keep the communication and the family rapport going without that bus service," she said.
"Upwards of 25,000 people were using this program. It operated very much as a lifeline for children," said Tamar Kraft-Stolar of the Correctional Association of New York. She said some 80,000 children have a parent in state prison, including more than 5,000 with an incarcerated mother, most more than 100 miles away.
Corrections officials said visitor totals have declined only modestly and have even increased at some maximum-security prisons. They said the free buses were often half-empty and weren't attracting new riders. Meanwhile, they have launched "televisiting" between Albion prison in western New York and a Brooklyn site, with plans to expand the program to Auburn prison in central New York and to Chateaugay and Clinton prisons in northern New York.
"We recognize that visitation is an extremely important part of an inmate's rehabilitation and preparation for re-entry, and we're going to do everything we can to facilitate that," said corrections spokesman Peter Cutler.
According to state data, visitors at its 60 correctional facilities declined more than 13,000 from 229,011 in 2010, the final year of the bus service, to 215,812 last year. In a program begun in 1973 and previously funded by prison phone surcharges that have since been reduced, contractor buses ran monthly from New York City, Buffalo, Albany, Rochester and Syracuse to all but two prison facilities, the Willard drug treatment center in Seneca County and Lakeview shock boot camp in Chautauqua County.
Corrections officials also became aware that the service wasn't attracting new riders, Cutler said.
"That combined with updated and enhanced federal and state DOT (bus safety) regulations created a situation that ultimately was determined it was not in the best interests of the department to continue the service," he said.
"There really hasn't been any impact on visitation at our facilities, especially the maximum-security facilities," Cutler said. They are also trying to enhance family contact through the new televisiting program, which now permits inmates at Albion, the medium-security women's prison, to talk to their families at a Brooklyn site, while they see each other on video screens.
At the nonprofit Osborne Association, an advocacy group working with the state on televisiting, Tanya Krupat said it's a good supplement but no replacement for personal visits. She disagreed with state officials and called decline of thousands of visits significant.
"We work on the human side," Krupat said. "I'm picturing the 10-year-old twins who haven't seen their dad. ... I have a 14-year-old who has not gotten to visit with her mom since the bus stopped."