Karen McDaniel of Menifee and her two children, 14 and 16, swelled with excitement at the idea of seeing for the first time since March their father who is incarcerated at a state prison north of Fresno.
It was November and the state had just announced it would roll out a video visiting system for its prisons in time for Thanksgiving weekend.
For the past nine months, since the state closed its prisons from in-person visits to keep the coronavirus out, McDaniel and thousands of others across California have been unable to visit with their incarcerated loved ones, touch them, let alone see their faces, a reality that McDaniel said has been hard on families, especially during the holiday season.
The only thing tethering families together during the pandemic had been mail and phone calls.
Visitors and inmates would be allowed one 30-minute video visit every 30 days, and it would roll out in phases among the state’s 35 prisons. The video calls were available on weekends and holidays only.
McDaniel managed to schedule a video visit with her ex-husband for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. John McDaniel is serving a 35-year sentence for robbing a McDonald’s and gun and gang enhancements.
However, by late November, a COVID-19 outbreak at Valley State Prison forced McDaniel’s ex-husband into quarantine, canceling their video visit.
She and her children began to worry about their father’s health, but were also disappointed at the lost chance to see his face.
McDaniel realized she wasn’t alone.
She leads Place4Grace, an organization that works to connect families with their incarcerated relatives, and has spent the last two months helping hundreds of others desperately trying to see their loved ones on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and in the weekends in between and after.
She fielded calls and responded to messages from people whose visits were canceled or who had trouble scheduling a video call.
Along with devastating COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the state’s prisons, successfully scheduling a video visit proved difficult, prisoner advocates said, due to paperwork issues, lack of capacity and widespread computer glitches on the system’s first weekend, when dozens of families were forced to cancel their visits.
“It’s traumatizing to the children; they are in fear for their loved ones,” McDaniel said. “I truly think it’s exacerbated by video visits being canceled.”
On the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, McDaniel said mothers dressed their children in their Sunday best, eagerly gathering them in front of computer screens, along with brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunties and uncles, some having traveled long distances to be there.
Families logged on from home while those incarcerated logged on from viewing stations in their prison yard.
But during the first hour of visits, McDaniel’s phone was flooded with messages from panicked families, sitting in front of blank screens, unable to connect.
By 8:30 a.m. families began to receive notifications that the state’s video visit system had crashed.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation acknowledged the widespread glitches, saying that most of the hundreds of video visits scheduled for Nov. 27 and 28 were canceled due to technical issues.
Christina Mendoza, a Manteca resident who runs a statewide inmate family council group with McDaniel, also has stepped up to help families connect with their incarcerated relatives during the holidays.
The pair manages multiple Facebook groups, some with thousands of users, where they field questions and concerns, which most recently, have largely been about video visits and COVID-19 outbreaks.
Mendoza, herself, had been attempting to schedule visits with her husband, Emmanuel Mendoza, each week since the rollout but had been denied each time since her husband tested positive for COVID-19 in early December.
He is serving a life without parole sentence for aiding and abetting in a murder for which he was present but was not armed and not the perpetrator, Mendoza said.
The last time she saw her husband was on March 3, when she was pregnant with their youngest child. She had hoped he would get to see their 5-month-old baby, born during the pandemic, for the first time by Christmas.
Though Christmas rolled by without a visit, Emmanuel Mendoza, who had just recovered from COVID-19, was allowed a video visit with his family on New Year’s Day. But the days leading up to the visit were full of pain and longing, Christina Mendoza recalled.
During a car ride with her children in late December, her husband had phoned in from Mule Creek State Prison. He asked their eldest daughter, 7, who sat in the back seat, what she wanted for Christmas. She said she just wanted to see him, tears welling in her eyes. Mendoza’s son, 12, also started to cry, and soon after, Mendoza joined them in tears.
“My daughter has been so, so sad ’cause she just keeps crying about how she misses her dad,” Mendoza said in December.
She and McDaniel also facilitate a support group on Zoom called Roses and Thorns where mothers, sisters or wives who have imprisoned relatives share their struggles of nearly a year without visitations. Each week, they get about a dozen to join, some new to the meetings, some long-time attendees. The sessions are often filled with smiles, the roses, and tears, the thorns.
“To let those feelings out,” Mendoza said. “Cause if not, they’re gonna’ eat you alive.”
Mendoza and McDaniel also hear of stories where children are coping with the absence and lack of visits with their fathers by acting out in school or with disruptive behavior in the home.
More than 500,000 children in California and about 5 million children in the U.S. have had at least one parent that has been imprisoned or jailed, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. Studies have shown these children often live in high poverty areas, are more likely to experience mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and have a higher chance of dropping out of school.
“It feels like an emotional roller coaster, watching the children our agency works with and our own children,” McDaniel said. “It’s heartbreaking, to the point where you don’t want to tell your children that you have a video call, ‘cause it’s so much up and down.”
Even before COVID-19, holidays were a difficult time for incarcerated people and their families.
Andrea Corrasco, a Bloomington resident whose husband, Francisco Corrasco, is serving a life sentence for stealing a car, his third strike, at a prison in San Diego County, said holiday visits carried with them the same hassle of every visit: costs for gas, food and sometimes lodging; and long lines at the prison that snake through metal detectors.
Before the pandemic, Corrasco visited her husband three times a month. On holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, she made the hours-long drive to spend the morning with Francisco Corrasco and would return home by evening to celebrate with her family.
What she misses most from those visits is the chance to hug him, hold his hands and take photos with him — the intimacy of face-to-face conversations.
“And just being in his presence,” Corrasco said.
She worries that her husband, who has stage 4 cirrhosis, will catch COVID-19, which recently spread throughout his prison, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, killing 9 people incarcerated there. She, other family members of the incarcerated, and advocates have decried CDCR’s handling of safety measures within its facilities.
A pair of reports from the state’s inspector general criticized CDCR’s inconsistent COVID-19 screening practices and lack of enforcement and adherence to safety guidelines among its correctional officers and incarcerated population, including the wearing of face coverings and physical distancing, which may have contributed to the risk of contracting the disease within its prisons.
As of Thursday there were more than 6,200 incarcerated people battling COVID-19, most of whom tested positive in the past two weeks, according to state data.
Infection rates within state prisons continue to far outpace national and state numbers outside prison walls. In late December, at the height of recent outbreaks, state prisons saw more than 9,000 people actively with the disease, about 10% of its total incarcerated population.
Throughout the pandemic, 144 people incarcerated in state prisons had died of COVID-19 as of Thursday. More than 50 of those deaths occurred within the past month alone.
Current CDCR policy states that any inmate who is in isolation or quarantined due to the coronavirus is not allowed to have a video visit.
McDaniel said her husband’s cell block remained on quarantine as of this week, continuing to keep her from scheduling a video visit with him for her children.
State prison officials said there are 1,285 video visiting stations across its institutions for its 90,000 inmates. Prisons have 25 to 50 visiting stations — an inadequate number, say advocates.
During the first weekend of December, when visits were available only to five of its 35 institutions, officials received more than 1,500 requests for video visits, but were able to only accommodate about one third of them, said CDCR spokeswoman Terri Hardy.
McDaniel and Mendoza also pointed to confusion around paperwork issues that have kept many from scheduling video visits.
“Last night, a crying mother who is being denied access to a visit called me,” McDaniel said in early December. “Her (visitor’s) application expired in May, and she’s being denied a video visit.”
“It’s her times 100.”
Prisons will periodically ask visitors to update their application information. Most people, McDaniel said, update their visitor applications at prison offices during in-person visits. But since those have been suspended, many were left with outdated paperwork, disqualifying them from scheduling video calls.
For now, CDCR said it is up to visitors to mail in their updated applications to their respective prisons.
CDCR spokeswoman Hardy said prison officials and visiting staff are continuing to fix the technical difficulties for visitors and working to continue to improve the new visiting system.
Not all were denied access to video visits during the holidays. Mendoza joined other families through Zoom during their visits to make sure their experience was successful. Once they connected, she quietly watched as each family erupted in excitement and tears.
Corrasco, the Bloomington resident, was also among the fortunate to have a video visit with her husband on Christmas day.
On Christmas morning, Corrasco sat in front of her computer screen in her home. “Meeting not starting,” the screen read. She grew nervous, thinking about the glitches and canceled visits she read about in Facebook groups for families of incarcerated people. Five minutes went by, and then suddenly, her husband’s blue inmate shirt appeared on screen, and next his face, as he sat down at his viewing station.
Second, Corrasco looked at her husband’s large smile. For most of the call, the two became lost in each other’s laughter.
Francisco Corrasco asked why other relatives hadn’t joined the call. Andrea Corrasco said not all of them had the proper paperwork for their visit.
“Hi mijo!” Andrea Corrasco’s mom yelled out to him from the hallway during the call. She promised more family would join the next visit.
“I would rather be sitting there having lunch with him or breakfast and being able to hold his hand,” she said, but acknowledged how important the call was for them both.
And now, Corrasco said she plans to wait 30 days for the next time the two can meet, even if through a computer screen.
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