Many people in Mississippi prisons are feeling confused and coerced into taking vaccines they know little about or don’t trust. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

Doris Carpenter worries about her young grandson. It’s been 15 months since he’s seen his father — her son — who is serving a 10-year sentence at the Bolivar County Correctional Facility in Cleveland. That likely won’t change any time soon because of a new policy put in place by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

The visitation policy, issued by MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain in May 2021, lays out guidelines restricting age and time frames that people can visit their loved ones inside of prison. According to the new policy, incarcerated people can only have two adult visitors and no children per session, and they can only come during specific hours once a month.

“It’s unfortunate that a 7-year-old child cannot see their father and cries all the time… In essence, they’re keeping their children from their loved ones,” Carpenter said.

When Mississippi reported its first case of COVID-19 in March 2020, MDOC suspended all visitation at their facilities, “effective immediately” and “until further notice.” The department reported 109 deaths in 2020 — of those, 22 were determined through autopsy to be caused by COVID-19, though dozens more are still pending autopsy results.

Over a year after COVID-19 gripped the state and the nation, MDOC mandated people incarcerated inside their prisons take COVID-19 vaccinations or forgo visitation once it was reinstated. While people can now visit the prisons, family members like Carpenter say the department’s new policy is not sufficient.

Carpenter said she and her husband are fully vaccinated, and their son received the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in April in the Bolivar County Regional Correctional Facility.

She wasn’t able to see her son until June 19, Carpenter said, her first time seeing him since the pandemic began in 2020. She drove over four hours to visit with her son inside the prison for less than one hour.

She arrived at the Bolivar County Correctional Facility with her husband about an hour before visitation started at 9 a.m., but prison officials only allowed people to begin filing into the prison 10 minutes before the visitation window opened, cutting into visitation time, Carpenter said. She  only got 45 minutes with him and is unsure when prison officials will schedule visits again at the Bolivar County Correctional Facility, she said.

“It’s almost like MDOC is doing everything in their power to prevent the visits than rather allow the visits,” Carpenter said, “even though the inmates have had the vaccine.”

Carpenter worries most about her 7-year-old grandson, the child of her incarcerated son, who is now not allowed to visit his father at all inside the Bolivar County Regional Correctional Facility, per MDOC’s visitation policy, which does not allow any visitors under the age of 18.

Carpenter’s son has been incarcerated since 2016, when his son was just a toddler. Carpenter would bring her grandson to visit his father inside the prison two times a month for a total of six hours. Now, under the new MDOC visitation policy, children are not allowed to visit their incarcerated family members and loved ones, a reality that deeply worries Carpenter.

“At 7 years old, they don’t really understand everything,” Carpenter said. “Even if I wear my mask, can I still not see my daddy? I can only talk to my daddy, but I won’t ever be able to see him again? Those are the kinds of questions I get from a 7-year-old used to seeing their daddy from the time they were two all the way up until 15 months (ago).”

Miles away from the Bolivar County Correctional Facility stands the South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) near Leakesville, where Sara Jane Scott’s husband is incarcerated. Scott visited her husband for the first time in late May and mid June of this year.

Scott’s husband, who is serving a life sentence, described seeing his wife during visitation as “an amazing feeling.”

Scott, who founded the prison reform advocacy organization The Parchman Project, said she’s heard different visitation guidelines being upheld at different prisons across the state. For instance, while visitation windows at SMCI are three hours, she said they are only one hour at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a private prison, not operated by MDOC, near Meridian.

She also said prison officials did not screen visitors for COVID-19 symptoms when she visited her husband in SMCI two times.

“They’re not asking COVID questions, so if you’re not asking questions, why are you using that as an excuse (to limit visitation)?” Scott said.

Another man serving a life sentence at Parchman said his mother and girlfriend visited him inside prison on June 13 for the first time in 16 months, a feeling he described as “being able to breathe fresh air again… like hitting reset.”

“It’s a great thing to have somebody come check on you,” Scott’s husband, incarcerated at SMCI, said. “It makes you feel like, OK I’m still here.”

Editor’s note: Doris Carpenter is using a pseudonym over fear that prison officials will transfer her son to another facility. Mississippi Today independently verified her identity, as well as her son’s.

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Brittany Brown was Mississippi Today’s Justice Reporter, covering the state’s justice system with an eye for racial justice and inequity. Brittany formerly served as Mississippi Today's inaugural Emerging Reporters Fellow.