By Cindy Lou
This writer and a friend made plans for a visit to a State Correctional Institution to see a loved one. Unlike the pre-pandemic days, visitors do not call the facility’s assistant superintendent or the incarceree’s counselor to arrange a visit but must use the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PA DOC) scheduling website.
Things did not go smoothly. In all, I spent about six hours on the website and on the phone. I was arrogantly bounced from phone number to number.
The incarceree I planned to visit put in a special request to his counselor.
But the message was always the same: Humans have been removed from the equation, and everything has to be done online on the website. At the last minute — when all hope was lost, and the visit was about to be canceled — some unknown PA DOC operative reached into the scheduled visit page and corrected the error.
A five-hour ride from Philadelphia to this institution in Western Pennsylvania costs $57 in gas and $70 in tolls. Then the visitors need to buy a special card and load it with funds in order to get snacks for their loved one from the vending machines (which in this case were mainly empty) or take pictures. So that was another $25. It costs $3 for four shots, but you only get to keep one, and you have no choice as to which one that is.
Our friend pointed out that there were only eight visitor groups — or about 25 people — in a visiting room that once held 100. Many family members and friends cannot visit their loved ones anymore.
A number of the incarcerated people are from Philadelphia and are shipped to prisons far away in Western Pennsylvania. Scheduling a visit takes too long, is too expensive and is too complicated (impossible if you don’t have a computer).
Most of these Western Pennsylvania communities are extremely right-wing and racist and know nothing of the culture of the cities where a lot of the incarcerees come from — but all that is for another story.
The bureaucratic practices the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections employs are used to deprive incarcerated people of the most basic right to a visit from a loved one.