In 2016, I was assigned to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla — six hours away by car from where my children live. I told the caseworker all about them and their mothers, and asked if there was any way I could be sent to a closer facility to increase the chances of them being able to visit. It wasn’t about me, I explained, but for my girls.
He didn’t laugh. He didn’t rationalize why it was necessary to send me so far away, even though there were plenty of prisons on this side of the state. He didn’t tell me that the mental health of my daughters wasn’t worth protecting. I might as well have been invisible, he was so dismissive of my distress, as he said, “Your file says you’re incarcerated for armed robbery, Mr. Moore. Tell me, did you rob old people, too?”
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My ten-year-old daughter is not doing well in school. Remote learning due to COVID-19 restrictions has failed to hold her attention, and she’s teetering dangerously close to having to repeat the fourth grade. I’ve been there. One year, I was only passed with an “incomplete” because I’d caused enough trouble that the school wanted me out as quickly as possible. I’m pretty sure I could help my little girl if I was around, but I’m not. I haven’t held her since she was four, because for the past seven years, I’ve been the property of Washington’s Department of Corrections (DOC).
Even before the pandemic, trying to arrange a visit was a nightmare. Her mother would have to go to the DOC’s webpage and fill out the tedious application. She would have to submit one for herself as well (minors aren’t permitted to visit their incarcerated parents without a guardian — or somebody approved by their guardian — present). That means she would also have to request to be removed from her incarcerated cousin’s visiting list, since an individual can only be on one prisoner’s list at a time in Washington state. That process alone would take three months to accomplish.
She would have to scan a copy of a completed and notarized consent form and send it along with the application. She would have to do that part at somebody else’s house, as she doesn’t have a scanner of her own. She and I didn’t exactly part on good terms, and this is a lot of work and embarrassment to endure, so she made a deal with my daughter: Get your grades up, and you can visit your dad.
My 16-year-old wants to be a journalist when she grows up, and she’s growing up fast. Her mother is poor and I’m not much help from prison. So my teenager, sensing she’s going to need savings for impending adulthood, works at a pizza shop rather than focusing on her education. I’ve offered to help her start getting published in order to build a portfolio that could potentially earn her a scholarship someday, but she’s too preoccupied with work and high school to even go through the process, let alone think about her long-term future.
Then there’s my young ones on the opposite side of the world, in London. Visiting has always been available to them, but the expense does not permit their traveling so far to see me. A flight for one is costly enough without having to multiply it by four.
Before COVID lockdowns, prisoners could receive visits three days a week. Bulky guards would march between tables with their chests out, watching for any physical contact beyond the touch of a hand between the parents. No touching shoulders. No brushing faces. No kisses or hugs, beyond a brief embrace and peck at the beginning and end of the visit. The tables were placed so close together that free movement for children was not always an option. There was a small play area with toys and video games, but it wasn’t designed for parents wishing to spend time with their spouses as well as their kids.
As soon as COVID-19 began to reach American prisons, it got much worse. Guards weren’t mandated to wear masks until the outbreak they’d introduced into our home led to a riot. Though the vaccine is finally available to anybody who wants it, some guards are refusing to take it. Meanwhile, visits — along with all religious, educational, and self-help programming — were canceled.
More than a year after Governor Inslee declared a state of emergency, visitation finally reopened. Initially, visits were permitted once a month, for an hour at a time, for two people. I heard from my neighbors that the visit was non-contact through a plexiglass box with holes drilled about knee high. Visitors had to sit on chairs, and they bent their waists like they were about to dive as they yelled to be heard above the chatter. Children under 16 were not allowed to attend.
On August 15, 18 months after the pandemic hit the United States, three hour contact visitation for up to three guests finally resumed. The age restriction was lifted, and families all over the state breathed a sigh of relief.
I expected complaints to still fill the air as, after all, visitation would still not be what it had been. Masks were now necessary, and meals could no longer be shared. I guess most of us were just so relieved to have contact visits again that we accepted what we felt would do us and our children some good.
Upon reflection, we know that so many holidays and birthdays have passed and although it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the faces of our young, we haven’t forgotten them. Despite DOC’s actions, we are more eager than ever to see them again. It’s been too long.