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File photo: The California Institution for Men prison fence is seen on August 19, 2009 in Chino, California.
California has suspended all visits to adult prisons for the last weekend of June. Prison officials say they made the decision to save money in a tight fiscal year. But the families of inmates say visits are the wrong thing to cut.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prides itself on programs like “Get on the Bus,” which offers family members free bus rides to prisons throughout the state. This month, prisons hosted several thousand children who were visiting their dads before Father’s Day. But Corrections — like the rest of the state government — had to cut costs this year.
“We have made a lot of cuts in a lot of other areas” said department spokeswoman Cassandra Hockenson.
Corrections froze hiring and banned unnecessary travel and purchases. Hockenson says the cancellation of visits this coming weekend was a last resort.
“This is something that we reluctantly did but had to do under the budget circumstance.”
For prisons, the cost of family visits adds up. Prisons have to boost staff to process and escort family members. Hockenson says canceling one weekend of visits will save prisons $400,000 in overtime pay.
But families of inmates think Corrections could find better places to cut spending.
“We have approximately three to six hours a week where we can sit in a room and talk and hold hands.” Said Oreta Beach — who’s husband’s serving 15 to life at the state prison in Solano for second degree murder.
She says family visits help calm inmates.
“Seeing me smile and talking with me that just brightens him inside — and it gets him out of the madness for a few hours, also.”
Beach decided to move to Solano so she can visit him every weekend. Other families travel far for inmate visits — sometimes to be turned away if trouble erupts at the prison.
“You fly in from another state” Oreta explains “and you go through the process, and as you get on the bus to go to the other side, they come out and say, 'Well, we have a situation over on your yard and you’re not going to be able to visit.'”
Beach says cutting visits hurts families already under financial pressure and stress. She’s worried that canceling visits at the end of June is a sign of more to come.
Last summer, the Department of Corrections cancelled plans to expand visits — but spokeswoman Cassandra Hockenson says there’s no plan to roll them back.
“We do not, absolutely not, see this as any type of omen or anything like that at all. This is just a one-time deal.” Hockenson said.
The visit cancellation does not apply to families of terminally-ill inmates. It also doesn’t apply to community correctional facilities or juvenile facilities. Prison officials say weekend visits will resume at state prisons next month.