Today I was invited to speak at the Anchorage Reentry Coalition Community Meeting. I gave the following statement:
"My name is Angela Hall and I am a member of Supporting Our Loved Ones Group. We are a support group for the families and friends of incarcerated persons in Alaska. For those that do not know me, my husband Brian Hall is serving a virtual life sentence in Alaska.
I was asked to share a little bit about the impact incarceration has on family members of incarcerated persons. As you may already know incarceration has a ripple affect that can be felt throughout the entire community. As family members staying supportive of our loved ones inside, we are often subjected to a fair amount of stigma. One need only read through the comments section on any prison or court related news story to witness this firsthand. Those ugly comments you hear or read, they’re coming from our neighbors, co-workers, sometimes even folks we attend school or church with. Though we were not involved in the actual crime that was committed, we are looked upon unfavorably for choosing to continue supporting our loved ones throughout their incarceration. We see the human being apart from the criminal act because we know our loved ones are greater than their worst act, and we are hopeful they will demonstrate change of heart and behavior over time to become better versions of themselves. Many family members suffer through trials where they are vilified along with their accused loved one simply for being related and being present in the courtroom. The emotional toll is heavy. Not only do we feel the public condemnation, but we also carry mixed feelings of guilt and grief for whatever harm our loved ones may have caused to others. This often leads to isolation or a complete withdrawal from the community. Depression, suicide and a myriad of health issues related to stress and anxiety are also common.
At the same time we are reeling from the sudden separation from our loved one, we must learn how to navigate the prison system and the ever-changing policies which involves things like learning the rules and etiquette of visitation, how to adhere to mail regulations, how to set up phone accounts, how to send money for commissary, etc. all while being held under the microscope of suspicion and scrutiny. Did you know you could be turned away from visitation at GCCC if you arrive 2 minutes after the hour even though the actual visitation isn’t until half past the hour? Imagine driving for hours to see your loved one only to be turned away because you were a few minutes past the cutoff time when there is literally 20 minutes or more left before they actually process folks into visitation. Or perhaps you get turned away because you wore the wrong type of clothing, or shoes. To top it off, each shift is different and rules are always subject to change so you do your best to be prepared for whatever the visitation officer dictates on that particular day, and you pray you make it in to visit so you can get that 5 second hug at the beginning and end of the visit because that makes it all worthwhile, but make sure you don’t hug too long because that’s grounds for termination of visit or a writeup in some places.
Now Covid19 has warranted the suspension of visitation, understandably so, yet despite the fact that we are entering our six month without visitation we have only heard excuses from the administration as to why we cannot have alternatives to visitation, but no real discussion about viable solutions. I say excuses, not to demean the DOC, but frankly because that is what they are. Oh we’ve heard it was a State statute that blocked the usage of technology, we’ve heard concerns surrounding the security of utilizing technology such as computers and or secure tablets, even though these concerns did not prevent the use of video calls, mini tablets, and email capabilities in the past. More recently it is concerns about the cost of putting in wiring and cable that would allow for internet access so that education, reentry programs, and video calls could take place, but interestingly no discussion on the impact lack of visitation and programming has had on the metal health of those inside and out, separated even further by this pandemic. No discussion about the needs of the children who have incarcerated parents they have not been able to see for the past six months. Families seem to be fairly low on the priority list. This is further evidenced by the constant threat of sending our loved ones out of state due to overcrowding rather than exploring ways to lower the population, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The emotional toll is indeed heavy, but so is the financial burden. In order to remain connected we pay exorbitant fees for telephone calls. Did you know that even though the State put a cap on local calls, calls that use to be free, if your loved one lives in a City or Town outside of your own, you are subjected to long distance pricing as if you were out of state? So instead of a call costing 1.00 plus taxes for 15 minutes you would be paying about $3.50 per call. Those calls add up quickly. Oh, and Securus placed a cap on how much money you can add to your phone account at one time, so they charge an additional 5.00 handling fee per every $50 dollars you add to your account. The Department is responsible for negotiating telephone contracts with Securus, and the decision to charge for these calls lands squarely in their hands.
During this Covid19 visitation suspension family members have increased the amount of telephone calls in order to try and maintain family connection. 3 free phone calls equate to 45 minutes of communication a week. Don’t get me wrong, we are grateful for them, but could you maintain a family connection thru 45 minutes of dialogue per week? Could you effectively co-parent in 45 minutes a week? Most of us cannot, therefore we pay, whatever the cost, sometimes forgoing other necessities in order to keep the calls coming in. We worry constantly about the status of our loved ones, which is why communication is so vital to us.
If there is to be a cost associated with whatever communication technology the DOC ultimately implements, all we ask is that it be a reasonable cost as families are already overburdened financially. Between Court fees, phone calls, and commissary to supplement proper dietary needs alone, we are overburdened. That isn’t even factoring in the cost associated with getting to and from visitation on a regular basis when it is open, and a myriad of other financial needs.
Folks may wonder, if the emotional and financial burden is so great, why choose to do it? To that I say, think of an individual you love dearly. Now imagine they were incarcerated. What would you choose? Would you treat them as a disposable commodity, or would you choose to love and support their rehabilitation?
As members of the community, as reentry workers and as DOC staff, you want and need us to continue to be supportive of our loved ones because we all know family support plays a vital role in the successful rehabilitation and reentry process. We are incentive and motivation for them to do better, we embody hope in a place where hope is hard to find. We want to work together with all of you, but we need your support too. We need quality visitation policies, we need affordable communication and commissary fees, we need peer support and counseling for our loved ones inside and for ourselves, and most importantly, we need to be included in the conversations surrounding our loved ones.