Delaware prisons resuming in-person visits, but virtual sessions remain popular option

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The visitation room at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (State of Delaware)

The visitation room at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (State of Delaware)

As of Monday, only six men incarcerated in Delaware and 12 Department of Correction employees had active cases of COVID-19, reflecting a steady drop in infections since the late fall.

Visitors will be separated from incarcerated men at Sussex Correctional Institution by a plexiglass divided and must wear a mask and come alone. (State of Delaware)

For corrections commissioner Claire DeMatteis, that means it’s finally time for the 3,400 people behind bars in Delaware to be able to see their loved ones in person for the first time since November.

“We know that it’s important for inmates to have contact with their loved ones in normal times,’’ DeMatteis told WHYY. “During this health crisis and economic crisis, we understand that it is doubly important for them to have that connection.”

The visits will resume March 16. Friends and family can start registering for a slot today. DeMatteis says potential visitors will be checked against a state database of positive persons and households before being permitted inside.

“We’re going to do it very slowly,’’ she said. “We’re going to first just have one person to be able to visit at a time so that we can socially distance.”

In-person visits abruptly stopped last March after the coronavirus started spreading at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, the state’s main prison for men. They resumed in late August but were stopped again in November when the fall surge hit.

A total of about 2,600 prisoners and staff members have tested positive since the pandemic began. Thirteen incarcerated men died of coronavirus-related causes, officials said.

Haneef Salaam says incarcerated men and women have been far too isolated and lonely during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Haneef Salaam)

Justice reform advocate Haneef Salaam says it’s about time the prison doors are reopened to the outside. He frequently assists people being released and says it’s critical that those meetings take place in-person.

“The situation that’s gone on in there is… I can’t even find the words to describe my feelings,’’ Salaam said.

“I mean, there has to be suffering and pain to already be incarcerated, but then not be able to have contact or visits? A lot of the brothers and sisters up on the inside, it’s probably been a lonely time for them not to have access to their people.”

Salaam stressed that safety must be paramount, to prevent further outbreaks and let bigger groups visit. “I just want to encourage people to always, to just be safe,’’ he said.

Yvonne Davis of Wilmington, whose fiancé Roger Boatswain is serving time at Vaughn, hasn’t seen him in person for a year. She says it’s been excruciating for both of them.

Yvonne Davis and fiancé Roger Boatswain are going to stick with virtual visits until more normal visits, with a brief hug, resume. (Courtesy of Yvonne Davis)

“You know, not having human contact is not healthy,’’ Davis said.

But despite their longing for in-person contact, this couple will stick with half-hour virtual visits until they can meet without wearing masks or being separated by plexiglass.

Delaware’s prisons have had online visitation, at a cost of $7.50 for 30 minutes, since before the pandemic.

“It will be more stressful for me to drive down, have a partition with a mask,’’ Davis said. “The plexiglass within itself is going to create a sound barrier. We wouldn’t be able to hear each other.”

Davis, a social worker, said Delaware also should get creative and perhaps allow visits outdoors on the prison grounds, where the risk of transmission would be lower.

Roger Boatswain and Yvonne Davis posed together during a pre-pandemic visit at the Vaughn prison. (Courtesy of Yvonne Davis)

DeMatteis said she understands that some would want to continue with video visits, but wants to provide as many options as possible. The department did not immediately respond to Davis’s  call to expand to outdoor visits, even on a temporary basis.

In addition to the resumption of in-person visits, the prisons are again offering programs for substance use disorder and mental health counseling.  Education programs are still limited to live video instruction.

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