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In-Person Visits At Iowa Prisons Resume After 16 Months

An inmate leans out the bars of his cell in a one–-prisoner-per-cell block in downtown Los Angeles.
Brian Vander Brug/LA Times Via Getty Images
LA Times via Getty Images
In-person visits at Iowa prisons were halted in March 2020 due to coronavirus concerns. Beginning July 10, incarcerated individuals were able to once again see loved ones face to face, after 16 months of waiting.

Incarcerated Iowans who have waited 16 months to be able to hug a loved one are once again being allowed to visit face to face. In-person visits at the state’s prisons have restarted for the first time since March of 2020.

For many incarcerated individuals and their families, the forced separation of the past 16 months has been excruciating.

Loved ones say emails, phone and video calls pale in comparison to being able to see their son, husband, daughter, mother or friend face to face.

After more than a year of making due with “video visits," Lisa was able to visit her husband last weekend at the Newton Correctional Facility. IPR is withholding her last name to protect her privacy.

“That physical touch means everything, you know?” Lisa said. “When you're on a screen, and you've got…’are my headphones working? Is my microphone working?’ I have to be careful as to what's in my background.”

The Iowa Department of Corrections resumed in-person visits beginning on July 10, though social distancing requirements and other restrictions remain in place. For now, visits are limited to just one hour and fewer people than usual will be allowed in at a time due to coronavirus concerns.

Incarcerated individuals are not being required to be vaccinated in order to a receive visitors, a mandate which state officials had initially announced in June before backtracking.

In-person visits ‘bittersweet’ for some

Lisa said it was bittersweet to make the multiple hour drive to and from the facility, only to be able to spend an hour with her husband.

“It was kind of bittersweet. But it was...it was really nice to see him there,” she said. “They’ve been great with the video visits, but that's only 20 minutes twice a week. And it's just not the same. So it was really…it was really great to be able to be back over there.”

DOC officials say inmates and their families will continue to have access to video visits as an alternative, including for those who can’t make the trip because of cost or logistics, or for those who don’t feel comfortable returning to the prisons yet.

“Some people have family members that are in California or in Ohio that can’t make it in-person. So for the first time they have the opportunity to see their loved ones,” through the video visits, DOC Director Beth Skinner said during a Board of Corrections meeting last week. “So we’re going to continue to do the in-person, starting that, and the video visitation.”

Iowa Board of Corrections July 2021

While families were able to rely on video visits, phone calls and emails over the past year, those means of communication were often cut off due to COVID-19 outbreaks that exploded behind bars, killing 19 inmates and two staffers in Iowa prisons.

At times, inmates were forced into lockdowns that left them confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, leaving them with few chances to stay in contact with the outside.

“The line of communication is very limited. You have to be very careful what you talk about. Whether it's a letter or an email or a phone call, there's always somebody listening,” Lisa said. “So now with the in-person visits, it's a lot different because then you're actually having a one on one conversation.”

Skinner warned that in-person visits may be limited again in the future, depending on case counts behind bars.

“We want to start off slow and then carefully watch the numbers on a regular basis,” Skinner said. “Now if our numbers start to grow in terms of staff positives or individuals incarcerated numbers, then we’ll have to make some calls in terms of maybe restricting visitations or suspending.”

Inmate vaccinations outpace staffers’ numbers

Since the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, transmission rates behind bars have decreased substantially. The latest department numbers indicate that as of July 2, two incarcerated individuals and seven staffers were positive for the coronavirus.

Vaccination rates behind bars have continued to increase, even after nurses at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison gave 77 inmates overdoses of the Pfizer vaccine.

As of last week, DOC officials said that 69 percent of inmates across all 9 prisons are fully vaccinated, more than 10 points higher than the staff vaccination rate of 57%.

A DOC official cautions that vaccination rates fluctuate day to day as more people get the shots and as inmates are processed in and out of the facilities. As of last week, vaccination rates among inmates ranged from 55 percent at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville to 85 percent at North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City.

COVID vaccinations remain voluntary for both inmates and staffers.

Advocates hope visitations will continue and restrictions will lift

Advocates and family members are hopeful that visitations will continue and policies will relax, depending on the COVID conditions.

Researchers have demonstrated that maintaining family ties during incarceration helps reduce recidivism and improve outcomes once inmates are released.

That time spent together in a prison visiting room is also deeply impactful for loved ones, especially children, says University of Northern Iowa criminology professor Alison Cox, whose research has focused on the experiences of inmates' families and barriers to prison visits.

“In-person visits were everything,” Cox said. “And there's so much other important things that happen during those visits that go beyond I think just lowering recidivism rates and maintaining that familial connection.”

Cox says the department should continue lowering financial, logistical and emotional barriers for prison visits in order to help incarcerated individuals maintain ties to their communities.

“I really want people to also think about, not only who are they going to come back to? Who is going to be there for them? But who are they going to be when they come out?” Cox said. “If we can maintain…facilitate and maintain those relationships with family members, with good friends or loved ones that they trust, they can confide in, that they can have a positive, supportive relationship with, we should be doing things…policies, programs to, I think, encourage that.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter