MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama prison inmates will soon be allowed personal visitors for the first time in 20 months, but there will be a number of restrictions.
The Alabama Department of Corrections said in a news release that visitation will resume Dec. 4. Visitation had been suspended since March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“We are pleased to share that the ADOC has reached a point where it is safe, at this time, to expand modified visitation and work release/work center activities statewide effective December 4, 2021. As COVID-19 still poses a significant risk in a correctional environment, several safety protocols and restrictions will be in place and must be adhered to as we expand these activities statewide,” the department said in a statement.
Inmates can only have two visitors at a time, including children. Visitors will be seated six feet from the inmate with plexiglass barrier between them. No hugging or touching will be allowed. Visits will be limited to one hour, and no eating or drinking will be allowed.
Alabama was one of the last states to have to resume prison visitation, according to The Marshall Project. As of July 30, Alabama was one of 10 states that had not resumed personal visits, according to the organization. Alabama had also suspended legal visits until this summer.
The prison system did make video visitation available and personal devices so inmates could send messages or place calls.
“We would also note that we have made significant efforts to provide incarcerated people in Alabama with access to resources that enable them to communicate with their loved ones while in-person visitation is suspended,” a spokeswoman for the department wrote in an earlier email.
Elizabeth Hancock, a college instructor with a doctorate in counselor education and supervision and who also serves as president of the inmate advocacy group Unheard Voices O.T.C.J., said it is psychologically damaging for people, on both sides of the bars, to go for so long without seeing loved ones.
“Not having that human touch can be very, very hard. It’s one of the things people in nursing homes struggle with too,” Hancock said.
She said the inmates and family members were excited for visitation to resume but the restrictions are disheartening and could end up discouraging visitation. Young children won’t be able to hug their parents and inmates won’t be able to see more than one minor-age child at a time, she said.
“Once again, ADOC has disregarded all rehabilitation purposes of visits and its importance to the mental health of those incarcerated as well as the family,” the group said in a statement.
Surrounding states resumed visitation earlier and some have fewer restrictions.
Mississippi resumed visitation in May, but then suspended it between July 27 and Nov. 1 because of a spike in COVID-19 cases. Mississippi allows inmates up to five visitors and “reasonable touching” between the inmate and visitor.
The Tennessee Department of Correction in April resumed modified visitation and now allows up to four visitors at a time, according to the department’s website. The Georgia prison system in April began modified in-person visitation that included a prohibition on physical contact. Florida resumed “no contact” visitation in October of 2020.
The Alabama Department of Corrections said the frequency of visits will be determined facility by facility, depending on the availability of visitation yards, staffing, and the number of inmates who qualify for a visit. The department said visitors will be screened at entry for fever and a random selection of 10% of participating inmates will be rapid-tested for COVID-19.