Skip Navigation

Locked Up Far Away From Home: The Problem of Distance in New York State Prisons

New York is the fourth largest state in the nation with approximately 20 million residents spread throughout the state. 43% of New Yorkers live in New York City, and 51,000 of the 20 million New York state residents are currently incarcerated by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) in state prisons divided into 54 correctional facilities, in different regional hubs spread out across the state. Though less than half of New York prisoners (46%) are from what are considered to be upstate communities, the majority of prisons are located in upstate New York. Additionally, the New York City regional prison hub has no medium, nor maximum, security state prisons. Due to this uneven spread, inmates are often incarcerated far away from their homes; 70% of all state inmates are placed in prisons 100 miles or more away from their homes, and 58% of all prisoners from New York City are incarcerated in prisons 200 miles or more from their homes. DOCCS purports to have a relatively progressive criminal justice system which protects rights to visitation as laid out in state law and policy. However, the sheer distance between prisoners and their homes undermines the supposed accessibility of prisons by families and loved ones. This problem cannot be easily repaired by the state or otherwise. Without a clear solution, New York City residents and low-income New Yorkers are disproportionately impacted regarding the ease of visitation which can, in turn, affect recidivism rates and the maintenance of familial connections.

This article is not an exploration of the racial or socioeconomic breakdown of New York State prisons, statistics which would be unsurprising to many. Inequality in all levels of the country’s criminal justice system is well documented, but prison distances introduce a new level of inequality adversely affecting the loved ones of inmates. The cost of traveling to a faraway prison is an obstacle for many low-income families. To visit the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the closest maximum security prison to New York City, each visit from the city can cost $175.  It is estimated that a visit to Mohawk Correctional Facility in Rome, New York, from New York City can cost $312 per visit. Some prisons are accessible at least partly by public transportation; but for the majority, prison visits are extremely costly and additionally time-consuming without a car. In an attempt to alleviate some of the financial pressure and long distances, New York State instituted a free bus system that carried passengers monthly from New York City to upstate prisons. This program ran for 38 years but was eliminated in 2011 due to budget cuts. To use the service, inmates would have to apply on behalf of their family members, and it is estimated that 25,000 people were using the service.  Currently, since the service has stopped running, private van companies have begun taking over the routes for prices of $50-$70 per person. These companies are unregulated and very secretive in the information divulged to the public.  Surveys have recounted horror stories of people being stranded for hours when vans have broken down, and there is little that can be done to manage these services due to their privatization. Visitation becomes a costly choice, both financially and potentially physically.

Unfortunately, infrequent visitation can be very psychologically damaging to inmates and their loved ones.  In situations where it is appropriate that children visit their incarcerated parents, it has been illustrated in many theories of child development how important physical contact is between children and parents for maintaining healthy relationships.  The maintenance of these relationships is especially crucial when parents are released from jail. The benefits of visitation for the state itself become more tangible when its effects on recidivism are examined.  The maintenance of family ties through visitation has proven to be directly correlated with lower rates of recidivism and improved behavior in prison.  It is thus in the state’s best interest to increase rates of visitation and ease the process of visitation.

Thus remains the problem of alleviating some of the symptoms associated with New York State prison distance. Firstly, there is the question concerning the potential resurgence of the bus visitation program. This program costs only $1.5 million annually, a mere .00086% of the total New York State’s $175 billion budget, and represents only .046% of the total DOCC budget. In 2012, just one year after the bus program was cut, visitation to upstate prisons decreased by more than 13,000 — but it is unknown if this was due to the lack of a free bus or other extenuating factors. Though bringing back the bus program would not be very costly to the state and may aid in visitation for some families; it is unlikely to solve the overarching problem concerning the inaccessibility of upstate prisons.

Some states, such as New Jersey, have instituted legal policies concerning the distance between an incarcerated individual’s home and the prison that inmate is sent to. The Strengthening Women and Families Act requires that courts consider placing inmates in facilities as close as possible to their families. However, given that most inmates are from New York City, the closest maximum and medium security prisons would not even begin to make a dent in the problem of distance.  Sing Sing Correctional Facility, only 35 miles away from New York City, can only host 1,800 men. Additionally, the large difference in land area between New Jersey and New York would render any similar legislation inadequate. As close as possible simply does not work in New York.  

Recently around the nation and in New York State, video visitation has been offered up as an alternative to in-person visitation.  Since this technology is still new, it is hard to predict the effects of video visitation on recidivism rates and the mental health of inmates as opposed to in-person visits.  Though video visitation seems to be a cost-effective supplement towards traditional visits, it is not without downsides. Activists warn about potential obstacles that could arise from substituting in-person visits with video calls including high costs of primary implementation, as well as the dominance of the service by a few unregulated corporations which could become very expensive for users.  However, with few other options, video calls do seem to be effective temporary supplements to the distance crisis.

It is clear that there is no simple solution to close the literal gap between loved ones and inmates.  Additionally, this is not an issue restricted to New York. Due to prison overcrowding, other states have had to move prisoners farther and farther from their homes. The issue of distance in New York, however, is exaggerated due to the population disparities in New York City as opposed to upstate communities.  It is impossible to simply pick up and relocate prisons. Thus, due to a lack of concrete action available to combat this issue, the importance of an awareness of the problem, easing financial burdens of visitation, and continued protection of the rights to in-person visitation are heightened.

Photo: “Prison Fence