On a mid-October morning, I drove from Philadelphia to State Correctional Institution Muncy, Pennsylvania’s oldest and largest women’s prison.
The prison, located in the north-central part of the state, is set at the base of a mountain and encircled by farmlands, feed mills and the upper branch of the Susquehanna River. The 170-mile drive took nearly four hours.
I was visiting Cynthia Alvarado. In 2010, a Philadelphia jury found Alvarado guilty of driving the getaway car in a robbery-homicide. The judge gave her the same sentence as the man who pulled the trigger: life without the possibility of parole.
I was there to discuss her case as part of a project on Pennsylvania’s accomplice liability laws.
When I arrived, just after noon on a Friday, the visiting room — an auditorium in a converted school building — was sparsely filled. Two officers stood watch over 10 prisoners and their guests.
The prisoners, women in their 20s and 30s, wore bulky maroon jumpsuits stamped on the back with the letters “DOC.” Just over a third of Pennsylvania’s women prisoners are serving time for violent offenses like murder, manslaughter, robbery and aggravated assault. But the vast majority of women prisoners both at Muncy and across the United States are incarcerated for drug crimes, property crimes and parole violations.
The visitors were mainly parents who looked to be of retirement age, along with a handful of spouses and friends. Although most of Muncy’s 1,400 prisoners are mothers, there were just five children among the day’s visitors, including an infant, a toddler and three kids under the age of 10.
Alvarado offered a precise count of how long it had been since she last spent time with Bianca, her 12-year-old daughter: two years, seven months and 13 days.
Nearly two-thirds of imprisoned mothers have never received a visit from their children.
Prison visitation policies vary by jurisdiction. Prisoners do not have a federal constitutional right to visitation and officials can deny a visit for any reason.
In Pennsylvania, visitors must be approved in advance and minor children must be accompanied by an adult caregiver. Prisoners who have lost custody of their children or committed an offense against a minor are typically not allowed visits with children.
Visits are the exception rather than the norm in American prisons. Less than a third of people incarcerated in state prisons will receive a visit in any given month.
For many imprisoned women, the number is even lower. In the years I spent researching my book on women’s prisons, I often encountered empty visiting rooms. In interviews, women complained that they rarely saw their families.
Although prison visitation is rarely prioritized in criminal justice reform efforts, research demonstrates that it is critical for prisoners and their families.
Visits strengthen family bonds and increase the odds that prisoners will acquire housing and employment following release – key elements for successful reentry into society. Regular visits with children boost incarcerated mothers’ self-esteem and lower their incidence of depression.
Given these and other benefits, why do so few women prisoners receive visits?
Some caregivers and incarcerated parents are reluctant to expose children to prison environments and the restrictive policies governing physical contact between parents and children. One survey of women prisoners in California discovered that 10% of mothers discouraged their children from visiting.
But distance is the main obstacle. Women’s prisons are fewer in number and located in remote areas. One study found that over 60% of mothers are imprisoned more than 100 miles away from their children.
When prisoners are located more than 50 miles from family, visits become less frequent. When the distance exceeds 150 miles, visits, especially those involving minor children, are virtually nonexistent.
Consider the challenges for the Alvarado family, who live in Philadelphia.
Judy, Bianca’s grandmother, does not drive. Although a third of Muncy’s prisoners are from Philadelphia and surrounding counties, there is no public transportation from city to prison. For $35 a person round-trip, a local prisoner advocacy organization offers a bus trip every other month. Unfortunately, these trips take place on Mondays, when Bianca is in school.
Occasionally, Bianca and her grandmother find a ride with a family member or friend. The prison does not offer evening or mid-week visits, which makes coordinating work and school schedules tricky. Families who want to maximize their time together must arrive at the prison by 8 a.m. Visits end at 3:30 p.m.
The drive itself, seven hours round trip from Philadelphia, is arduous. Rest stops are few. One segment features stunning mountain vistas but no safe areas to pull off to change a diaper or feed a hungry toddler.
Related: Convicts are returning to farming
Prison visits are expensive. Traveling to remote locations means that many families incur costs associated with lodging in addition to transport. Among low-income families, the costs of visits and phone calls can consume up to a third of a family’s monthly income.
Visitors are not allowed to bring outside food and drink into prisons. Instead, families eat meals from prison vending machines. Pennsylvania prisons recently installed machines featuring fresh food options: salads, sandwiches, wraps and yogurt. Prices for fresh food range from $4.25 to $5.25 per item.
To use the machines, visitors must first buy a special debit card ($2). During my visit with Alvarado, we purchased two buffalo chicken wraps ($10.50), a small bag of Fritos ($1.50), ginger ale ($2.25) and a bottle of water ($2.25). Compared to other families who report spending in excess of $80 or more on food, our lunch was cheap, at $18.50.
For a single visit to SCI Muncy, I spent $80 on food, fuel and highway tolls. This is in excess of what a minimum wage worker in Pennsylvania can earn in an eight-hour day.
Not surprisingly, one study reports that families are forced to choose between going on a prison visit and covering childcare expenses.
There are over 111,000 women in state and federal prisons — a number that has barely budged in recent years despite criminal justice reform efforts.
A key disadvantage that imprisoned women confront is the lack of prison visits. Reducing burdens on families who want to visit offers an alternative.
Two low-cost ways of doing so are through the provision of transportation services and expanded visiting hours. Additionally, collaborative partnerships among legislators, sentencing authorities and the Department of Corrections officials offer possibilities for new policy innovation. Given that women’s crimes are typically non-serious and nonviolent, one option to explore is community-based alternatives to traditional forms of incarceration.
In recent years, California, Washington and Oregon have passed legislation allowing primary caregivers of minor children to serve time in alternative, community-based programs provided they meet eligibility requirements and are nonviolent offenders.
Preliminary research suggests that alternatives to incarceration may improve women’s odds of reentry success and provide benefits to their children and families.