Brooklyn Eagle Story on Visiting and Visiting Buses

11 October 2019

They met as children. Now married, she’s been visiting him in prison for nearly 20 years.

Loved ones of the incarcerated could benefit from a program that makes family visits easier and reduces recidivism — if lawmakers pass it.

Visit the Brooklyn Eagle website to view the photo essay of Kaywonda and Javon's family visit.  

Kaywonda Banks sits in an unmarked olive green van parked near Barclays Center, two full bags of food and house supplies between her legs and her 8-year-old son in the seat next to her.

This is the starting point for her four-hour, roughly 100-mile trip into the mountains of New York, where her husband, Javon, is incarcerated at the Otisville Correctional Facility.

Maintaining her marriage and providing a father figure for her children means regularly skipping sleep and traveling upstate — without owning a car. For the single-income mother of three, it’s a $500-a-month toll.

Banks tries to visit Javon at least every other weekend. “There’s nothing I feel like I won’t do for him,” she said on a recent evening in her East New York home. “I want him to feel like he’s always still connected to the outside world. He still has somebody that does love him unconditionally.”

In 1973, New York began to offer free bus service for residents of New York City, Albany, Rochester and Syracuse to visit incarcerated family members. But in 2011, the state slashed $70 million from the budget of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision — so DOCCS cut the program.

Since then, the state agency’s budget has been restored and even increased. There are fewer prisons now in New York State, and fewer incarcerated people, but money for the visiting program never returned.

Private companies have filled the gap, charging parents, spouses and children as much as $75 per person to visit their loved ones. A set of bills that advocates say could help have, so far, stalled in Albany.

Many facilities in rural locations, including Otisville, are not accessible by public transportation. Banks and others without their own cars are left little choice but to pay the price: money, time and stress.

6:00 a.m. — Banks’ son Isaiah watches cartoons on his phone. Before they leave the city, the driver picks up passengers in Queens and the Bronx, allowing time for riders to eat breakfast at 7-Eleven as the sun rises.

Banks, 39, spent the night doing her hair, choosing an outfit and preparing a care package for her husband instead of sleeping — but the trip to see Javon has gotten much easier over time. It was a 329-mile drive to Clinton Correctional Facility and 261 miles to the Elmira prison. After two decades in upstate correctional facilities, Javon was sent to Otisville, the closest he’s been to home since 1996.

The couple met when they were both 8 years old, living in the same building on Decatur Street in Bushwick.

“We were like boyfriend and girlfriend but as kids,” Banks said. “My childhood sweetheart.”

Javon’s mother died and he moved away, but he continued to come back to the block to visit. Near the end of 1995, Banks noticed he wasn’t coming around anymore.

Banks and her son, Isaiah grab breakfast at a 7-Eleven in the Bronx. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Javon sent her a letter in 2001. He was about 27 miles from the Canadian border serving 23 years to life in prison for a murder he committed at age 16.

Aug. 11, 2001, was the first day Banks visited her childhood friend in prison. After 16 years and hundreds of visits, Banks and Javon were married in an Otisville ceremony.

Isaiah, 8, eats breakfast before the van leaves the city. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

A 2012 report from the Vera Institute of Justice found that 70 percent of people incarcerated in New York prisons were located more than 100 miles from their homes — and more than a quarter were more than 300 miles away.

If one were to drive 300 miles south on Interstate 95 from New York City, they’d pass Newark, Philadelphia, Trenton, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before reaching Thornburg, Virginia. With no stops, it’s more than a five-hour drive.

During the last year of the free bus program, buses shuttled 11,750 visitors to New York correctional facilities. Thirty-eight percent of those were New York City riders, the Vera report states.

Family visits have proven to reduce recidivism and promote easier re-entry into the outside world, said Allison Hollihan, senior policy manager for the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents at the Osborne Association, a group that works to create opportunities for people affected by the criminal justice system.

8:45 a.m. — After an hour on the freeway passing barns, factories and apple orchards, the van winds up a wooded road before fences topped with razor wire and a lookout tower come into view. Riders begin to organize their belongings and turn off their cell phones.

Once inside, Banks passes through a metal detector to the visiting room. After a short wait, Javon walks through a door on the far side of the room. Isaiah runs to him and jumps into his arms.

Visitors wait until 9 a.m. to be let into the facility. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Javon is not Isaiah’s biological father — nor is he Rayquon’s or Zarya’s, Banks’ older children. But all three have a strong relationship with Javon, and have visited him regularly over the years.

If he gets out of prison, the 40-year-old plans to work in construction and talk to young people about his experience to help set them on the right path.

There are an estimated 105,000 children with parents incarcerated in New York State. A study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found family visits reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony convictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations.

New York DOCCS has not conducted any studies in relation to visiting and recidivism, but the department says it is committed to maintaining family ties.

“DOCCS encourages continued family bonds and prepares inmates for their return to society through facility visits, structured visitation programs and family events,” said an agency spokesperson in an email.

The Minnesota study also found that the more frequent the visits, the less likely it was for a person to return to prison after release. Advocates in New York say supporting visits is an investment in rehabilitation.

“When families aren’t able to remain connected during the period of incarceration, it makes re-entry, which is already challenging for families, even harder,” said Hollihan of the Osborne Association.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed the expansion of video visits as an alternative to in-person visits, but Hollihan said it’s difficult for cyber connections to match the intimacy that comes from physically being with someone.

“We hear all the time from children and families that nothing can replace being able to see somebody in person and to hug them and to interact with them,” she said. “So phone calls are wonderful, video visits are a wonderful supplement, but nothing can replace those in-person visits.”

2:45 p.m. — “Last call for ‘click click,’” yells a correction officer in the Otisville visiting room. That means it’s time for photos. Banks, Isaiah and Javon pack up. Banks cleans off the table and the family gets in line to pose for a set of Polaroids that will mark the physical memory of their most recent trip.

They divide the prints between them — each for their own photo books — before the goodbyes begin.

“When I leave I can’t take him with me, and I always look back and wave my hand,” Banks said. “The first day I ever went to Otisville and we had to leave, when I looked back and I looked at him, I wanted to break down, and my kids would not let me, like, ‘Mommy, be strong.’”

For years, advocates in New York worked to encourage state government and DOCCS to reinstate funding for the free buses. They’ve now gotten behind a bill introduced in 2017 by Manhattan Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa that would bring a version of the free program back for residents of New York City, Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester.

De La Rosa sees the legislation as a small part of a larger wave of criminal justice reform in the state.

“We live in a society in a nation in a state in a city, where the criminal justice system, I believe, is broken,” the assemblymember said. “I believe in a system of justice that is restorative, not punitive, and because when you’re punitive, you’re not only punitive to the person who made the mistake, you’re punitive to the entire community.”

She will reintroduce the bill, which is sponsored by State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery in the Senate, this January. The difficulty in getting it passed, De La Rosa believes, is the recurring expense on the state. She is asking for $3 million annually out of DOCCS’ roughly $3 billion budget.

Advocates are also pushing another piece of legislation that would place incarcerated parents into the facility closest to where their children live. Versions of that bill have been kicked around Albany for nearly a decade.

“The importance of [the bills] goes beyond basic human decency … it works to preserve families and family bonds,” said Montgomery.

7:00 p.m. — Banks is back home, where she adds her new photos to the book decorated with her and Javon’s names. This month is her 40th birthday, and as her husband awaits a parole board decision, she is hoping to celebrate at home, with Javon.

The visit and the preparations have swallowed up a day and a night, and cost Banks, a city Parks Department employee, roughly $200.

“Getting up extra early, all of that takes a toll on me,” she said. “At times, I just want this day to come and get it over with, just let him go. He did a crime, he paid for it, he paid enough, just let him go.”