By Hannah Critchfield

As the vaccine rollout continues behind bars, North Carolina state prisons are expanding opportunities for families to see incarcerated loved ones.

All young children are now permitted to visit parents or family members in prison. 

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This new policy went into effect on April 1, according to Department of Public Safety Spokesperson John Bull. Nonetheless, some incarcerated people and as well as their family members appeared to be unaware of the change prior to being contacted by North Carolina Health News.

“My grandson Will, who’s six, was with me last weekend, and he said, ‘I haven’t seen my daddy in so long,’” said Teresa Hovatter, whose son Will Hovatter Sr. is incarcerated at New Hanover Correctional Center in the eastern part of the state. At the time, she did not know Will Jr., who’s 6, might be eligible to visit.

“I said, ‘I know little Will, but we can’t help it, because of the virus. That’s why he tries to call you every day,’” she recalled.

State-run prisons without “a significant outbreak of COVID-19” have technically been open for visitations on a limited basis since October 2020. 

Even those that were open to visitors had significant restrictions. The time a person could visit their family member was limited to 30 minutes, and notably, kids under 12 couldn’t visit at all.

Carceral settings, where many people live in relatively tight quarters and social distancing  can be difficult, have long been considered “incubators” for transmission of the virus. During winter months, almost half of North Carolina’s 55 state prisons faced coronavirus outbreaks at once — leading these facilities to once again close their doors as holidays came and went.

“I would give anything if [little Will] could just go visit his daddy,” Hovatter previously told NC Health News and WFAE. “There have been a couple of times that he’s questioned if he’s still alive. And that — that’s just heartbreaking.”

Under the new policy, state prisons may also now extend visit times past 30 minutes, “at the discretion of the leadership at each prison facility,” according to Bull.

Still rolling out

Bull said he did not have an available list of prisons that have implemented a return to normal visitation times.

“I don’t know the duration of visitations at each of the 55 prisons,” he said. “They would vary.”

DPS has not yet published anything on their website announcing the change, but NC Health News is including a copy of details on the new visitation policy below.

As the world gradually reopens in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, some limitations on visits in prisons will remain.

Visitors will still not be able to hug or touch their incarcerated loved ones, for example.

“Little Will is so anxious to see his daddy,” said Hovatter. “But if we have to go and Little Will just looks at him through the window, I think that’s gonna be very difficult for him. 

“He’s 6 years old. I would have to explain to him you can’t touch your daddy because of the virus. I just feel like little Will would cry and be very upset if he couldn’t get to him. So I have mixed feelings about it.”

Whether someone can visit with their loved one is not contingent on their vaccination status, Bull said.

“While offenders and staff continue to be vaccinated, Prisons is discussing what pandemic health and safety measures can be loosened in the weeks and months to come,” he added. “Those decisions will be based on public health guidance and will be made in due course.”

Some families are skeptical of how the updated policy will be implemented on the ground by wardens, who oversee visitations at individual prisons. 

Hovatter said she herself has not seen her son in seven months – New Hanover Correctional Center has been closed for visitations since mid-October, despite not having any current positive COVID-19 cases. 

Reopening visits at prisons without outbreaks were the “guidelines to the wardens,” according to Bull.

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Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered...