CRESTWOOD, Ky. — There’s an app on Lottie Tanner’s phone that counts the seconds since she last saw her husband, an inmate at Kentucky State Reformatory (KSR), without a sheet of plexiglass between them.
“It’s been two years, 46 days, 13 hours and nine minutes since our last contact visit,” she said on Saturday.
This week, Lottie and Michael Tanner will see each other in person for the first time since prison visits were suspended in January due to the rise of the omicron variant. But it’s a contactless visit, so the app will still count.
“At this point, I would settle for a hug,” Tanner said.
Several states that had suspended prison visits this winter reopened in February or March as the omicron faded, but Kentucky still has not reopened all of its correctional facilities. Instead, the Department of Corrections (DOC) has staggered reopenings, with several facilities allowing visitors in March, others reopening this month and the rest expected to do so by May 10.
This process has caused Tanner endless frustration, especially with COVID cases in Kentucky prisons at zero as of April 1, according to to the DOC’s own numbers.
“We should have had visitors for at least two months,” she said.
That would have been in line with Louisiana, which suspended prison visits in early January because of omicron, but ended that suspension in late March. In its announcement on the resumption of visits, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections mentioned, “Maintaining in-person connections with loved ones is critical to a person’s success in prison.” colorado too allowed visitors to return to prisons in March.
Wisconsin allowed visitors to return to prisons on March 1, even with 77 active COVID infections. “Family bonding while incarcerated has been shown to positively impact success when returning to the community, and in-person visitation is one way to maintain that bond,” said Kevin Carr, DOC secretary of the State, in a press release.
Tanner said Kentucky inmates have been deprived of this connection for too long. His concern is particularly great for children, who will not be allowed to visit even after the current suspension is lifted. Visitors must be 18 or older, according to the DOC.
“If you can’t bring unvaccinated children, I understand that,” she said. “But six and over should be able to come and visit and they don’t allow it. That’s my biggest complaint with the governor. He is very pro-family, but our families matter too.
The Kentucky DOC made visitation decisions to “save as many lives as possible from the COVID-19 public health crisis,” spokeswoman Kathrine Williams said in an email. They have established guidelines “to keep staff, inmates and visitors healthy while in communal settings” and to protect the communities in which the prisons are located, she said.
“DOC continues to monitor COVID outbreaks and expects to make adjustments to visitation guidelines in the near future,” Williams wrote.
“Let me make a person’s life better”
In some ways, Tanner owes her marriage to German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Her 2011 death row documentary, Into the Abyss, radicalized the New Jersey native, turning her into a death penalty abolitionist.
Before long, she was spending countless hours writing to death row inmates. “I was like, ‘I can’t abolish the death penalty on my own, but let me improve a person’s life,'” she said.
In the summer of 2015, when a friend suggested she write to her later husband, Tanner almost declined. “I had 17 pen pals at the time,” she said.
But she couldn’t help it and added an 18th. “It was July 2015,” Tanner said. “In September 2015, I came to visit him. In October 2015 we were engaged and I had moved here.
They married the following summer, and for three and a half years they settled into a routine. For a time, Tanner could visit KSR for six hours at a time. Then the rules changed and she was allowed to do two-hour visits on Saturday and Sunday. During visits, the couple played games and Lottie bought snacks for Michael from vending machines. “I tell people, we’re a really normal married couple,” she said.
That all changed in March 2020, when the DOC suspended prison visits at the start of the pandemic. These rules have been maintained for more than a year. In the summer of 2021, KSR reopened to visitors.
“In such a weird way, when I first went back there, it felt like home,” Tanner said. “It was both frightening and heartwarming.”
When tours were suspended again in January, Tanner said she thought it would be temporary. Instead, it’s been dragging on for nearly five months. Now that it resumes, contact is still off-limits, which Tanner says doesn’t make sense.
“Now that we’re vaccinated and strengthened and I don’t see a mask in sight, I don’t understand why we can’t have contact visits,” she said. Williams, with the DOC, did not respond to a question about this policy.
Despite the limitations, Tanner is thrilled to see her husband on Wednesday. She remains frustrated with the slow reopening, especially since the world outside of prisons feels like the pre-COVID era and she has her theories about what’s going on.
“I think it’s contempt for incarcerated people in general,” she said.