Cuomo's Prison Visiting Proposal Bad for Families, Taxpayers and Public Safety

Tucked deep in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal released late last month is a plan that would reduce the number of in-person visiting days for women and men in New York’s maximum security prisons from seven to three – impacting roughly 22,000 incarcerated people statewide and their families back home. The Governor’s Office argues that the change is needed to align with the limitations the state already imposed on visiting at medium security facilities and to save taxpayers $2.6 million by eliminating 39 positions. 

This policy decision is simply wrong and disproportionately harms families of color who are separated by incarceration. It is also bad public safety policy. Maintaining family and community ties reduces recidivism. It is well established that incarcerated people who maintain relationships with their families have better outcomes when they return to the community after they are released. The Minnesota Department of Corrections conducted a comprehensive study on this very subject tracking approximately 16,000 incarcerated people over five years from 2003 - 2007. It found that “the hazard of reconviction for a felony was 13 percent lower for those people who were visited than for those who were not visited.” Moreover, the likelihood of recidivism from a technical parole violation was reduced by 25 percent for those with visits. Lastly, the results showed that reconviction was even further impacted by the number of visitors, with each additional visitor reducing this risk of a subsequent conviction by 3 percent.

Based off the empirical evidence, the report advocated strengthening Minnesota’s prison visitation polices because social and family support for people incarcerated produced a greater benefit for public safety. And on the subject of cost savings, Minnesota confirmed that policies leading to more visiting were a wise investment with a potential high reward that “correctional systems could take to help ease the burden of prison overcrowding and budget deficits.”

Similarly, a joint study conducted by Florida State University and the University of South Florida on the local prison population evaluated recidivism rates and compared those people visited while in custody versus those who were not. Similar to Minnesota’s findings, the report concluded, “any visitation was associated with a statistically significant reduction in the likelihood of recidivism.”

These results are not unique to Minnesota and Florida but comport with other smaller studies conducted around the country and share what we’ve experienced as the nation’s largest and oldest public defender organization serving New York City for the last 140 years.

Gov. Cuomo’s plan seeks to substitute in-person visits with video conferencing. Video-conferencing is useful in encouraging more frequent contacts, but it should be an added tool, not one that supplants the important contact visits permitted by in-person visit. Letters and videos are no alternative for face-to-face family interaction, not least of all between parents and children. It is also not the cost savings it purports to be, since recidivism costs the state far more in the long run than facilitating visits will cost now.

This is a step back from the progress New York has made in repairing our criminal justice system. New York should be expanding family and community visiting programs in medium security prisons, from which people will return to the community soon, and maintaining the existing programs in maximum security prisons. Gov. Cuomo should protect New York families and make New York safer, not ignore the overwhelming evidence that limiting prison visitation does absolutely nothing to serve the best interests of families, taxpayers and public safety.

Tina Luongo is the attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society's criminal practice.