Though the value of prisoners being able to see family members regularly is clear, it is not the responsibility of taxpayers to make it happen.
Last year, New York cut $1.5 million in costs by eliminating the free bus service that brought families to visit almost 56,000 prisoners in state facilities. Those buses were familiar sights here in the North Country, which is home to state facilities in Dannemora, Malone, Chateaugay, Moriah and Ray Brook.
Since many prisoners in the New York system are from urban areas, people who are incarcerated in the North Country are often many miles away from their families. And those relatives may not have the money or means to transport themselves here.
Now, some people might have no sympathy at all for the inmates; after all, if they hadn’t committed crimes, they wouldn’t be separated from their families. Maybe they think that prisoners being far away from their families is just punishment for their transgressions.
But there are reasons we should want inmates to stay in touch with families. It makes sense that continued contact would give imprisoned people a better foundation — and more hope — for an improved post-release life. And visits from family keep their spirits up while they are still in prison. In a recent article, the Associated Press referenced a study done in the state of Washington that showed that prisoners who received regular family visits were six times less likely to commit prison violations. That would suggest that family visits to prisoners have a side benefit for the many North Country residents employed as correction officers.
All that said, the question remains: Who should bear the cost to get the families to their inmate relatives? Certainly, in these difficult economic times, that burden should not be on taxpayers. State agencies, unions, non-profit entities, educational institutions, families and individuals — all have had to shoulder some of the losses associated with reducing budget costs in New York.
The elimination of the program, which was started in 1973, has had an impact, with the number of visitors to state prisons dropping by 13,000 from 2010, the last year of free bus service, to 215,812 in 2011. State figures show that visitations to all North Country correctional facilities declined somewhat during that time, except Moriah Shock, which recorded an increase.
It would be difficult to justify re-establishing the free bus service. This seems like a project that could be undertaken by community advocacy agencies or church groups. Perhaps fundraising efforts or grants could restore occasional bus trips.
And the state should continue to pursue digital means to connect family and prisoners. “Televisiting” is already being used in some sites, with Chateaugay Correctional and Clinton Correctional in Dannemora in line for future connection.
We urge advocates to steer their efforts toward non-taxpayer-supported means to connect prisoners and their families.