In a recent nightmare, 8-year-old Jovina dreamt that her father got COVID-19. He was getting sicker and sicker, but she and her mother weren’t able to get there in time. “There,” in the case of her father, is a cell at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, California, nearly 300 miles from where she lives in San Jose.

Jovina’s mind is swarming with worries about her welfare of her father, Joseph Vejar, her mother Benee Vejar reports. If an earthquake shakes the Bay Area, Jovina asks, “What if the building crushes in on him?” When she sees him on one of their infrequent, short video calls, her worries about his well-being spike. She “flips out” if he removes his mask, repeatedly asks him to wash his hands, and tells him how she longs for his embrace, declaring on a recent call, “Daddy, I want to squeeze you so bad!”

In June, Jovina refused to touch her food, telling her mother, “I don’t want to eat. I’m not feeling so good today. I miss my Dad. When are we going to be able to see him?”

A few days later, after months of separation, a joyous visit with her father took place at the prison. However, like other children with incarcerated parents in California and around the country, Jovina has no clear sense of when she will be with her father again.

Jovina Vejar with her father, Joseph, in the visiting area at the prison where he is incarcerated in Susanville, California. Credit/Benee Vejar

For the last year and a half, Jovina has had to cope with the added strain of living through a global pandemic, which, until recently, shut down family visits altogether.

Jovina is among an estimated 5 million children in the United States who have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their childhood, according to Child Trends, a research organization focused on children’s issues. Latina children like Jovina are twice as likely as white children to have an incarcerated parent and Black children are more than five times as likely, according to a report by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Being separated from a parent due to incarceration has long been identified as an adverse childhood experience by the landmark ACE study, which tied this hardship and nine other types of childhood adversity to a higher risk of developing serious health conditions in adulthood.

Children with an incarcerated parent were three times as likely to have behavioral problems or depression, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD and anxiety than children without an imprisoned parent, according to a 2014 study from the Population Reference Bureau. The impact also included “loneliness, stigma, unstable childcare arrangements, strained parenting, [and] reduced income” as well as mental health issues, antisocial behavior, drug use, poorer sleep and eating habits and a decline in school performance. 

The separation is excruciating for prisoners as well. “I did not see my family for a year and a half, and I felt myself slipping away,” Philip Melendez said at a town hall meeting last February led by Rob Bonta, then a California Assemblymember and now the state’s Attorney General. Melendez, who has been out of prison for three years after serving a 20-year sentence, said that family visitation was a lifeline that “kept me focused on what I needed to do to come home.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore the outsized toll that separation exacts on families with incarcerated loved ones.

In Texas, an anonymous survey of 500 people in the Texas Inmate Association in 2020 by the nonprofit news site The Conversation found that family members of prisoners experienced “extreme distress” during the pandemic, which claimed the lives of 187 prisoners in the state by mid-April 2021. “My son has been locked in a cell with temperatures over 100 degrees for up to 23-plus hours a day for weeks on end now due to COVID,” one 74-year-old woman told the authors. “I fear he will either perish from the conditions or somehow take his own life.” 

At Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State, Tristan Appleberry recounted the last visit he had with his wife and toddler before the lockdown and how tortuous it has been to lose that contact. Interviewed in a piece for Business Insider, he said his wife told him his daughter “grabs the phone and hugs it” as she carries it around the house when he calls. “I’m trying to be a father and husband, but honestly I’m just an iPhone with a voice my little girl calls daddy,” Appleberry said. “I pray every day that she knows me when all this is over, whenever that will be.”

Federal Correctional Institute at Terminal Island, San Pedro, California, April 20, 2020. At the time half the inmates were infected with COVID-19. Credit:Robert V. Schwemmer/Shutterstock

A California coalition of prison rights groups has been working for years to remove barriers to in-person visits among family members. The group sponsored AB990, known as the Family Unity Bill, which passed the California legislature in early September with strong backing from San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, whose parents were incarcerated for most of his childhood.

“Children who have been left behind, children who have committed no crime, have a right to a relationship with our parents, have a right to get to know our parents, have a right to get to know the people who brought us into the world even if they have made serious mistakes,” Boudin said during a panel discussion on Zoom. “But the way we respond and the way we treat people who commit crimes punishes the children and families as well.”

The bill – drawn from a Bill of Rights created by the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership – highlights the rights of a child to have a “lifelong relationship” with and “to speak with, see, and touch” their incarcerated parent. It sought to strengthen protections so visits can’t be denied based on alleged disciplinary violations by an inmate, the criminal history of a family member or an inaccuracy or omission in a visit request form.

A 2015 study of visitation policies in 50 states led by Boudin found that states consider prison visits a “privilege” rather than a right. The study, in the Yale Law and Policy Review, noted that restrictions on visiting were bolstered by a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld  Michigan policies restricting visits by children and banning prisoners with two substance use violations from visits for at least two years.

The barriers to visitation vary from state to state, with California barring family members from visiting relatives if they themselves have a criminal history.

“Every time I go and see my nephew, he asks how is his dad doing, can we go visit him,” says California resident Bobbie Butts, whose brother – her nephew’s father – has been in prison for the last nine years. Butts would like to take her nephew, who she says has special needs, to visit his father. “But because I have six felonies, I can’t take him,” she said, adding that she tries to reassure her despondent nephew that “we’re working on that.”

California prisons can also cancel visits if visitors fill out a form incorrectly, such as failing to report even minor interactions with law enforcement that may have occurred decades ago.

Christine Herrera unwittingly made that mistake. She applied for a visit so she and her kids could visit her husband for Thanksgiving in 2018 and forgot to mention a citation for driving with an expired driver’s license 15 or more years earlier. It took Herrera three months to find out why she was denied the visit. She was perplexed, because she’d never been in trouble aside from that. “I thought someone had stolen my identity,” she said.

Prior to COVID-19, Benee Vejar hadn’t been denied visits with her husband, although a parking ticket she forgot to report once delayed a visit. “It was ridiculous,” she recalled.

“It’s taking advantage of people’s faulty memories and taking (away) their visiting, which is a constitutional right,” said  Rita Himes, a staff attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, part of the statewide coalition that pushed for the passage of AB990. 

Benee Vejar and her daughter Jovina in a Zoom interview with the author. Credit: Laurie Udesky

California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill on October 6, 2021, citing the risk of “extensive and costly litigation from individuals denied visitation for what may be valid and serious safety and security concerns.” Himes, of Legal Services for Children, said the coalition supporting AB990 was disappointed but vowed to bring the bill back next year and noted its broad support by the legislature.

Joanne Scheer knows firsthand just how wrenching a denial can be. In 2011, she was on the freeway en route to a visit with her son Tony at the California State Prison when she got an unexpected call from the prison.

It turned out that Tony’s new cellmate had been caught with drugs, just days before Tony was due to be transferred to the Honor Yard/Progressive Program Facility. Even though his cellmate had admitted the drugs were his and Tony had nothing to do with them, Scheer said, prison officials still charged both of them. The officer on the line told her she wouldn’t be allowed to visit that day or for the next three years and that Tony was in “the hole” for drug distribution.

Scheer pulled off the freeway onto a dirt road and stumbled out of her car. “I just literally started screaming and crying,” she said. She called her husband and told him what happened. “We were dumbfounded and had absolutely no idea why on Earth we wouldn’t be able to hold our son for three years. It was one of the most traumatizing things we’ve ever had to go through.”

Tony, then 25, had been in prison for about 18 months and had just been accepted into the Honor Yard, which offers education and community service programs to inmates with no disciplinary history. The denial of the transfer, as well as parental visits, led him to spiral downwards, Scheer said. “He started using drugs,” she said. “He started to disappear. He just gave up hope and thought, ‘What the hell, I’m never going to see my parents again.’”

Officials of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to respond to specific questions about visitation denials. 

“CDCR recognizes the value of visitation for the incarcerated population and the importance of maintaining family and community ties,” Terri Hardy, a department spokesperson, said in an email. “The department continues to refine and improve the visiting process to address operational needs and to create a better system for friends and family. No further updates are pending at this time.”

Research suggests that the benefits of family visits are more than anecdotal. A 2012 study in the journal Corrections Today reported that “any visit reduced the chance of reconviction of a felony by 13% and the chance of parole revocation by 25%.” Prison and jail visits also strengthen families and can mitigate mental health risks to children, according to a 2017 report by the Urban Institute. 

Restrictions on visitation are not the only barriers keeping families from seeing their loved ones.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. Credit: ACLU

“Many prisons are located in remote rural locations, far from the urban centers where most of the incarcerated people come from,” says David Fathi, the director of the ACLU National Prison Project based in Washington D.C.  “It may be that you have to drive a couple hundred miles. It may be that you have to stay in a hotel. If visiting is only available on weekdays, or if visiting conflicts with your work schedule, you may have to take a day off without pay. So just getting to the prison is often difficult, and prohibitively expensive.

When Vejar, Jovina’s mom, makes the nearly 300-mile journey from San Jose to Susanville, she often pairs up with other families to share costs of hotels, food, and gas. Still, she sometimes has to sacrifice other necessities to make it happen. “If Jovina needs shoes, I’ll have to wait until the next month. Or I won’t pay the whole (utility bill). I’ll set up a payment plan, and pay the minimum on credit cards,” Vejar said.

Jovina and her father

She works hard to help her daughter have regular contact with her father. On a video call, Jovina ticks off a list of things she loves to do with her dad, including watching films together, playing card games and making breakfast. “He made me 5,000 quesadillas!” she exclaims, recalling her last visit in early June. She also has a ritual she repeats each time she sees her dad.

“I run to him, and I jump and he catches me and carries me,” she says, her eyes brightening at the memory.

When asked about the ride home after the visit, Jovina’s face saddens, and she turns away and falls into her mother’s arms. The timeline for when she’ll see her father again is uncertain.

Laurie Udesky is a staff writer for PACEs Connection, which works to promote positive childhood experiences (PCEs) that help mitigate and even reverse the impact of childhood trauma from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). MindSite News has adapted this article with permission from the author and PACEs Connection, which published Udesky’s article on California prison visits and AB990 on September 22 of this year.