Joanna Hernandez has seen her son once in the past two and a half years.
It isn’t a matter of distance; he’s only ever a few miles away, at a San Francisco jail where he has been incarcerated for five years. Hernandez works for the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project but, like other parents, she has not been able to see him since early 2020, when San Francisco suspended in-person jail visits as Covid-19 arrived in the city.
Since then, Hernandez’s contact with her son has been primarily through a computer screen.
“He’s depressed,” she said. With visitation suspended and jail programming largely on hold, inmates at San Francisco jails, like Hernandez’s son, get as little as 45 minutes outside their cells each day. Before, he had up to several hours to walk around each day, and regular visits from his mother and son, who’s now 5.
“If we’re talking about stopping generational incarceration … well, how are we doing that? We’re not even letting these children be with their fathers, their mothers,” Hernandez said.
Research has long shown that in-person visitation and regular family contact reduces recidivism and improves behavioral and mental health outcomes for those incarcerated. Despite this, San Francisco has been slow to allow family visitation, even as pandemic restrictions have been largely lifted across the city.
Other Bay Area counties reopened jail doors for families and friends to visit months ago. San Mateo County’s two jails allow in-person visits, as do all three jails in Contra Costa County. Alameda County, meanwhile, allowed in-person visits for a period before suspending them, following the county’s public health recommendations.
Aside from a few special-occasion visits, though, San Francisco never reopened.
And there’s more to it than just visitation. “As a mother and as a service provider, I see it on both ends,” Hernandez said. “People are just sitting in jail, collecting cobwebs and getting out to nothing.” Her son gets “packets or coloring books” slipped under the door into his cell, she said, and not much more by way of support for his eventual release.
This lack of support, Hernandez fears, will result in worse outcomes for people who are eventually released.
While Hernandez is concerned for her 29-year-old son’s wellbeing behind bars, some of the children affected are on the outside, eagerly awaiting the day they can see their parent again.
Camille Kittles’ brother-in-law has been in a San Francisco jail for seven years, and his teenage daughter, who stayed with Kittles for the summer, hasn’t been able to see him face-to-face since 2020.
“Seeing someone in person and seeing someone digitally is a lot different. The impact is different,” said Kittles. She said understood the need for Covid-19 precautions, but called it “absurd” that even contactless visits through a window were still not permitted.
Her 17-year-old niece doesn’t openly share how she’s feeling, Kittles said, but her facial expression after each virtual visit shows their insufficiency, as do her frequent questions and checks of the Sheriff’s Department website for updates to the visitation policy.
“For me, as an adult, it’s more heartbreaking to have those types of conversations,” Kittle said. “Because you’re powerless, at the end of the day.”
On Memorial Day and Independence Day of this year, in-person visits were temporarily permitted for the general public. But it’s unclear how widely this was allowed; Kittles said she knew nothing of these one-off occasions.
And on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day this year, some children were able to visit their parents in jail through a program called One Family that facilitates face-to-face visits without the barrier of a window. This means parents and children can hug, play games and do homework together, said Kristina Bedrossian, Executive Director of the nonprofit Community Works, which runs One Family.
Hernandez and her grandson were able to visit the jail for Father’s Day, the only time they made physical contact with her son since March, 2020. While she was thrilled at the opportunity, she was determined to keep the momentum going to reinstate visitation.
Her young grandson wanted to know “why Daddy left” him again, Hernandez wrote to the Sheriff’s Department after the visit. “This is a real anxiety for children of incarcerated parents.”
Last week, the Sheriff’s Department announced plans to reopen limited visitation for Labor Day, and for limited hours on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons thereafter.
Under this “tentative” plan, the nearly 800 people incarcerated at County Jails 2 and 3 can receive a visitor every other week in September. How many visitor slots are available, and whether more visits will be allowed in October, is unclear.
The 4-hour general visits are restricted to a single adult visitor, and are on weekday afternoons, when many may be at work. Parent-child visitation through the One Family program is expected to launch on Sept. 10, with different sections of the jail getting visits on Saturdays.
The new visiting hours were chosen based on “when there is a more reasonable assurance of staffing,” said Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Tara Moriarty. “As we continue to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, the monkeypox outbreak, and current staffing challenges, the Visiting Committee will meet in order to explore whether visiting can be expanded any further.”
Deputy Public Defender Sylvia Nguyen said her clients’ families already had trouble getting weekend visitation before the pandemic, because it involved calling at the exact right time to book an timeslot, and knowing how to work the system.
Now, with only four-hour time slots available every other week, Nguyen said she feared it would be “a thousand times harder.”
This uncertainty contributes to a desperation. Some of Nguyen’s clients take plea deals “even if it’s not in their best interest.”
“They’d rather walk out with a conviction … and ensure there’s no further damage to their children or significant other,” she said.
Nguyen said the 4-year-old child of a first-time incarcerated client began exhibiting behavioral issues, like acting out at daycare and crying every night, once her father was in jail. The client was ultimately released and his case is being dismissed, but the damage done to a family by these separations can last.
Weekly video visits allowed inmates some unprecedented access to milestones from jail during the pandemic, Bedrossian said, but she emphasized the importance of physical contact.
“It was pretty amazing just to see that reunion, and also to see how difficult it can be to bond again,” said Bedrossian, who said she attended the Mother’s Day event this year. “There’s so much more to do around what humane visiting looks like in jails. That pain and that heartbreak was very evident to those who were there.”
One 17-year-old saw their mother for the first time in two years, Bedrossian said, and would turn 18 in a matter of weeks. This meant they would age out of the One Family program, and had no idea when they might be able to return or see their mother again.
Starting this weekend, the now-18-year-old can fight to get a visitation slot with the rest of the adults. Hernandez, meanwhile, said she’ll try her best to get an appointment to see her son.
Families are “desperate for there to be consistency,” Bedrossian said. They want to know: “If I say bye to Mom today, when is the next time I’m going to see her?”