Amid ongoing legal battle, Broome County jail continues to restrict in-person visits

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The Broome County jail suspended in-person visitation in March 2020. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

 

The Broome County jail shut down in-person visitation in March 2020, due to the spread of COVID-19. But over two years later, people inside the jail still can’t visit with friends and family.

Advocates with Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST) filed a lawsuit in Broome County’s Supreme Court back in May, demanding the jail allow in-person visits again. Last month, a judge ruled in their favor. But the county has appealed the ruling.

In the meantime, activists say people inside the jail are isolated and frustrated.

“These people have been without personal contact from a loved one for over two years now,” said Ella Friday, the women’s issues coordinator at JUST. “How cruel and inhuman is that? And the logic for why is just no longer justifiable.”

Sheriff David Harder declined to comment on the case. But he and the county have argued in court documents that staffing shortages and the continued spread of COVID-19 would make in-person visitation complicated and unsafe.

Jullian Harris-Calvin directs the Vera Institute’s Greater Justice New York program, which researches criminal justice reform and policy across the state.

Harris-Calvin said studies show in-person visits can help decrease recidivism and support people’s reentry when they leave jails and prisons. She added incarcerated people also have a constitutional right to visitation.

“That is just your job as a corrections department,” Harris-Calvin said. “So when people have a constitutional right to these visits, making your job easier is not really an excuse.”

JUST activists argue that without face-to-face contact, people in the jail have had to rely on expensive phone and video calls to stay in contact with loved ones.

“People inside, their families, are desperate, they’re ready to, you know, go knock on the door. But of course, the doors to the jail are locked to the public and have been for years now,” Bill Martin, a founding member of JUST, said.

The Appeal reports that the jail charges $10 for a 15-minute phone call. Text messages cost 25 cents each, and a 30-minute video call costs $7.50. There is also a charge of over $3 to add money to a detainee’s account.

Since the jail stopped in-person visits, inmates get one, free five-minute phone call per week.

A 2009 contract between the jail and provider Global Tel Link showed the jail receiving over 40 percent of revenue that comes from phone calls, and 20 percent of revenue from video calls and tablet charges. Activists argue this incentivizes the jail to continue restricting in-person visitation.

“We don’t buy the health and safety thing. I think Sheriff Harder has found a very unique way of making money here that other jails haven’t utilized as much,” said Jackson Hengsterman, who runs JUST’s volunteer visitation program.

Sheriff Harder declined to comment on the case. The county has until Friday morning to show cause for its appeal of the judge’s ruling.