New York State’s Family Reunion Program is Positive, Emotionally Nurturing and Reinforces Family Bonding

Earlier this year, New York State Senator Pamela Helming (54th district) introduced a bill (S2575) that would make permanent the hardships thousands of New York families have suffered during the Covid-19 crisis. The proposed law would require the commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) to permanently terminate the conjugal visit program, commonly known as the Family Reunion Program (FRP). It also prohibits the creation of any similar visitation program by the commissioner or other agency. It’s important to note that this program — which is critical for families of incarcerated New Yorkers and their loved ones — has been closed since March of 2020.

This bill is in direct contrast with DOCCS’ stated purpose of the program, being that “the Family Reunion program was designed with the goals of preserving and strengthening family ties that have been disrupted as a result of incarceration, fostering positive responsible conduct, facilitating post-release reintegration into the family and community, thereby reducing the likelihood of recidivism.”

The Family Reunion Program has lived up to those goals and plays an intricate role in contributing to positive behavior, mental health, well being and overall rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals who are participants. As a positive and emotionally nurturing program, the FRP fosters and reinforces family bonding between multiple family members of incarcerated individuals. The contribution of these visits to the overall well-being of those incarcerated and their visiting family is invaluable.

It is also important to note that the name of the program has been changed from conjugal visits to extended family visits, thus making the name a more accurate representation of the program. These visits preserve family units as they allow spouses, children, parents and grandparents to spend time with the incarcerated individuals. It is believed that preserving the bond of the family unit makes the chances of the incarcerated individuals’ rehabilitation greater and likelihood of recidivism less.

So why are family ties so crucial and why should elected officials and prison administrations do everything they can to keep them going?

  • Humanitarian reasons: A prison sentence means the loss of liberty, not the desolation of family ties.
  • The incarcerated person’s well-being: Visits are important markers for prisoners, often providing a much needed ‘boost’.
  • For the incarcerated person, visits from family and friends mitigates against becoming institutionalised, supports positive behavior and overall social and emotional well being.
  • Visiting helps family (children especially) to understand what prison is like for their loved one and can provide emotional comfort for the traumatic experience of separation. Often it’s not as bad as children have been imagining and myths are often dispelled.
  • Prison visits make it more likely that the family remains intact. This means that when the incarcerated person is released he/she is better able to integrate into society.
  • Visits allow the incarcerated person, albeit temporarily, to maintain their role as father/mother/son/daughter/husband/wife. It is an important reminder that they are more than their incarceration/ circumstance.
  • Maintaining family ties through visits is a cost-effective way to reduce recidivism.
  • Visits keep families together and potentially prevent family-breakdown by building and sustaining more meaningful relationships and help keep support structures in place for when the person returns home to their community.
  • Visits and the maintenance of family ties can help prevent the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.
  • Studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates.

These findings represent a body of research stretching back over 40 years. For example, according to “Explorations in Inmate-Family Relationships,” a 1972 study: “The central finding of this research is the strong and consistent positive relationship that exists between parole success and maintaining strong family ties while in prison. Only 50 percent of the ‘no contact’ inmates completed their first year on parole without being arrested, while 70 percent of those with three visitors were ‘arrest free’ during this period. In addition, the ‘loners’ were six times more likely to wind up back in prison during the first year (12 percent returned compared to 2 percent for those with three or more visitors). For all Base Expectancy levels, we found that those who maintained closer ties performed more satisfactorily on parole.”

These findings still ring true. An article published in August 2012 in Corrections Today, a publication of the American Correctional Association, titled “The Role of Family and Pro-Social Relationships in Reducing Recidivism,” noted that “[f]amily can be a critical component in assisting individuals transitioning from incarceration because family members provide both social control and social support, which inhibit criminal activity…. In contrast, those without positive supportive relationships are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.”

These findings are backed up again and again by research from The Vera Institute of Justice and other well-established sources.

As one incarcerated New Yorker told me, “It is an honor to partake in the program. It allows my wife and I to further nurture our relationship and build an even stronger bond with each other. The time we spend together and the memories we have made as husband and wife during Family Reunion Program visits are significant and precious to us. (It is) is a small glimpse of normalcy and an experience of what life will be like when I return home to my family and reintegrate back into my community. The Family Reunion Program is vital for successful rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals.”

DOCCS recently announced the return of the Family Reunion Program this fall, although it came with Covid testing and vaccination rules that place additional burdens on families. Despite this update, and the fact that the last legislative session has ended, Senator Helming should withdraw S2575 and other lawmakers should reject this kind of measure outright.

Tasha Sanders,
Tasha is a member of Alliance of Families for Justice, the advocacy organization for the families of incarcerated New Yorkers. She currently resides in Charlotte, NC; her husband is currently incarcerated in New York.

AFJ is powered by and for the families of incarcerated New Yorkers and allies across the state. www.afj-ny.org