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Missouri prison inmates will be able to have visitors without restrictions in April

James White plays checkers with his wife, Michelle Hickman, during a visit to the prison in Vandalia. This was the last time Hickman and White were able to visit with each other without any pandemic restrictions. On April 1, those restrictions will no longer be in place.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
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James White plays checkers with his wife, Michelle Hickman, during a visit to the prison in Vandalia two years ago. That was the last time Hickman and White were able to visit with each other without any pandemic restrictions. On April 1, those restrictions will no longer be in place.

Joyce Hawkins has not seen her daughter since December 2019. She thought she would still get to see her during the coronavirus pandemic, but the chartered bus she normally takes from St. Louis to the women’s prison in Vandalia stopped its trips two years ago.

Prison officials canceled the bus rides to the prison to help keep the virus from spreading to inmates and staff. For the past two years, the Missouri Department of Correction has limited visits to prisons to protect prisoners from the virus.

On April 1, the Missouri Department of Corrections will resume normal visitation operations and families can visit loved ones in state prisons without any COVID-19 related rules.

Lifting visitation restrictions is important because many inmates do their time off the strength of their family visits, said Toni Jordan, Let’s Start program coordinator for the Criminal Justice Ministry.

“Family means the world to a lot of people,” Jordan said. “I know during a time of being locked up, people need that support.”

Visitors will no longer be required to wear face masks, schedule visits in advance or pass a health screening test prior to entry. The visiting room will operate at full capacity, and offenders are allowed more than two visitors.

Two years ago, the Missouri Department of Corrections suspended all visits until June 1, 2021. Only residents who were fully vaccinated could visit their loved ones. Last October, state officials allowed non-vaccinated inmates to resume visits, but friends of family were required to wear masks and the visiting room was capped at 75%.

Through the Criminal Justice Ministry’s Let’s Start program, Hawkins can now return to Vandalia once a month to visit her daughter. Prison officials allowed bus rides from Let’s Start to return to the women’s correctional facility in October 2021.

Some families who counted on those free bus rides did not see their loved ones for nearly two years — and Hawkins is one of them. She could not make the nearly three-hour road trip herself because she cannot drive long distances because of health concerns and because it was too costly.

Going to Vandalia once a month helped her cope with her daughter’s 20-year prison sentence, Hawkins said.

“It’s not too many ways I can deal with it because she is closer to Kansas City and I am in St. Louis,” Hawkins said. “Sometimes I can feel my child's pain here and my child is near Kansas.”

Jordan drives families on the chartered bus from St. Louis to Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center on the last Sunday of every month. She said the prison’s pandemic restrictions made it difficult for some prisoners to keep a close relationship with their loved ones.

Jordan said it’s necessary for prisoners to see their children, parents, friends or spouses because it helps them stay positive and it is a special occasion they could look forward to every month.

It will be a celebration for Hawkins at the end of this month when she travels to Vandalia.

"It's like somebody is throwing a big birthday party for me when I am able to see my child again,” Hawkins said.

Both Jordan and Hawkins hope that with the lifted restrictions, prisoners will be able to see the smiles on their loved ones faces, as they will not be hidden behind a mask.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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