Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS) has been busy preparing volunteers to return to visiting people incarcerated in federal and military prisons across the country.
During the pandemic, very little in-person visiting was allowed, but volunteers were able to write letters to the people they formerly visited. While federal prisons have been slow to re-open, about a third are back to permitting visits and volunteers are adjusting to the new post-COVID requirements.
PVS has also started recruiting new volunteer visitors, particularly for prisons where there are long waiting lists, or in remote areas where there are no visitors at all. It is estimated that nearly half of people incarcerated in federal prisons never receive a single visit, and it is known that people who have contact with the outside world do better both during their time inside and upon returning to their communities.
Finally, PVS is working on a virtual event scheduled for October 26 featuring Susan Burton, the activist, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and coauthor of the award-winning book Becoming Ms. Burton. Burton will be in conversation with David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, PVS board member and creator of the Death by Incarceration and Suave podcasts.
“I really appreciate you writing. You are the only one I’ve gotten a letter from this year. And it really makes it a good day to know there is someone that will take the time out of their day and let others know they are thought of.” These words came from Jeffrey, a person incarcerated at Federal Correctional Complex, Butner, a prison in North Carolina. Jeffrey is one of thousands of people visited by volunteers through Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS), an independent, nonprofit, nonsectarian organization based at Friends Center in Philadelphia. PVS volunteers have been visiting people incarcerated in federal and military prisons for 54 years, but the pandemic meant that—like so many others—PVS had to completely change the way they operated. Instead of face-to-face visiting to help people incarcerated cope with the “normal” isolation of prison life, PVS volunteers turned to writing, in hopes of supporting the people they had come to know in facing the overwhelming fear, sickness, and loneliness of the pandemic behind bars. While it has not been the same, the connection between visitors and prisoners has remained strong, and many are counting the days until in-person visiting resumes. In the meantime, volunteers will continue to write, providing “a candle light in my darkness,” as Paulino, incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary, Big Sandy, in Inez, Ky., phrased it.
Throughout the pandemic, prisons have been closed out of necessity. During this time of lockdown, isolation, and fear, Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS) visitors have maintained close contact with prisoners through letter writing. PVS visitors have found themselves creatively keeping an open line of contact with prisoners—some even learning sufficient Spanish to write to Latinx prisoners. More than 400 visitors offer friendship and a listening ear, which can help prisoners with personal growth and the developing of peaceful strategies to cope with prison life.
An important part of PVS training holds that each prisoner has worth and potential and that no one is defined by their crimes. One prisoner who has been visited regularly over 20 years by PVS volunteers recently commented: “Being able to say it out loud is liberating. Being able to say it out loud to someone who really cares makes all the difference.”
Cofounded by Quaker activist Fay Honey Knopp over 50 years ago, Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS) continues to provide a supportive presence to those in prison despite the challenge presented by the pandemic.
Each month 400 PVS volunteers visit prisoners in over 100 federal and military prisons throughout the United States. With the onset of the pandemic, all prison visits were suspended indefinitely as of March. Prisoners are locked inside their cells for 23 hours a day as the virus spreads within many of the institutions. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, in recognition of years of PVS involvement, has granted PVS visitors special permission to correspond with prisoners during this period. Some of these prisoners are on death row at FCI Terre Haute and are scheduled to be executed. Prisoners are responding to their PVS visitors expressing deep appreciation for their letters, often the only contact they have with the outside world. Prisoners say that PVS is a lifeline for them, a connection that provides hope in a time of fear and desperation.
During this interim period, PVS staff are using technology to keep in touch remotely with visitors, providing support and resources. Staff are also developing new training resources for visitors to prepare them for returning to face-to-face visits with prisoners who have experienced the effects of trauma resulting from months of isolation.