This year, those who staff North Carolina’s 56 prisons got to spend Christmas with their families, thanks to the Department of Corrections’ generous vacation time policy. As a result, however, no one was around to oversee family visits for the state’s 38,000 incarcerated individuals. For them, the holiday season was anything but merry.
For the last 17 years, I have had the privilege of corresponding with a man serving a life sentence for a crime with an ambiguous verdict. Sentenced to life without parole, this man remains a loving human being whose innocence has been in question over the 31 years he has served so far. He continues to make a viable life for himself under the harshest of conditions. Over the years, he has been transferred to six institutions due to overcrowding or closures. He has repeatedly fallen through the judicial cracks when every appeal to reopen his case reached a dead end. Even his closest relatives have disappeared from his life, severe poverty trumping the possibility of routine visits.
This holiday, I had planned to make the 250-mile trip to visit this man for a few precious hours. Given that the prison requires 48 hours’ notice for visitors, I started calling Monday morning to arrange a Saturday visit. I called repeatedly for three days straight, but no one ever picked up the phone, nor was there a recorded message or website post about a change in visitation policy.
I finally called the main number only to find that all prison personnel were on vacation for the holidays and that there would be no visits until the following week. Rattled, I called the office of the State Director of Prisons and received the same news. My heart sank. I wondered what impact this would have on my friend, along with thousands of other inmates and their families. Did the inmates even know what was coming?
Institutional staff members deserve time off for Christmas, certainly, but it would seem only humane to provide a substitute mechanism for prisoners, too, to be able to spend a little time with their families during the holidays. The rights of the incarcerated may be subject to debate, but surely prisoners should be able to visit with their families when the majority of us are celebrating peace on earth and goodwill toward men.
Glenna Batson lives in Durham.