SALT LAKE CITY — The pandemic kept many Utahns away from loved ones, but that's especially true for families of men and women in the Utah State Prison.
Visits were canceled for more than a year as the state sought to limit the spread of COVID-19 at the prison's sites in Draper and Gunnison. Now, as Utah has loosened pandemic restrictions, the prison is allowing visits to take place in person, but from behind a plexiglass barrier, with masks on, and no more than once a month.
The rules are disheartening for inmates and family members who have longed to embrace loved ones as they feared for inmates' health in the crowded settings where more than 3,000 were infected and 18 died.
The prison says it's receptive to their concerns and is working on new guidelines but believes a cautious approach is best way forward as the infectious delta variant circulates and the state seeks to limit further outbreaks in lockups.
Janessa Bordenave, whose fiance, Alexander Millan, is being held in the prison on a parole violation from a robbery case from when he was 17, was elated when she learned she could once again enter the prison's gates to see him. But her hopes were dashed when she learned she couldn't be able to hug him or bring along their children, ages 1 and 6, under the protocol.
"I think the only thing that was keeping us somewhat sane was the idea of us being able to see each other in person, you know? So this has been hard on him," she said. "I think it throws him into a bigger depression that he can't hold or see his kids."
The current protocol doesn't distinguish between visitors who have gotten their vaccines versus those who haven't.
Bordenave has opted for video calls instead so the kids can see and chat with Millan, but the virtual visits are also limited to once a month due to limited internet bandwidth at the prison.
Katie Black Wood is vaccinated but said she doesn't want to visit her father, Tom Black, in person for fear she could be a carrier without symptoms. He got COVID-19 while in the prison last year, she said, amplifying his health issues. She was dismayed when the prison dropped the number of video calls available from four per month to just one last month.
"They never explained it to the people that visit at all," Wood said. "We haven't been told anything."
Before the pandemic, families could stop by as often as one time each week.
Utah Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted said prison administrators hashed out the current protocol with guidance from the Salt Lake County Health Department. The agency introduced video calls earlier this year to help inmates connect with those they care most about, but it continues to navigate technical issues, like bandwidth limitations that limit how many tablets can be used for video calls at one time, Felsted said. It's working to sort those out.
While Utahns are largely forgoing masks in supermarkets and other public spaces, those are different from group living environments like jails and prisons, Felsted noted. She said prison administrators are receptive to families' concerns and are weighing how to accommodate more virtual and in-person visits.
"They're kind of going back to the drawing board, I think, at this point, and looking at, 'OK, how can we continue to bring back more visits?'" Felsted said. "We're just asking for families to be patient for a couple more weeks while we figure it out."
The prison plans to continue allowing inmates 10 free phone calls each week as it works out the kinks, she said.
Last month, three prison employees working in the Olympus mental health facility at the prison tested positive for COVID-19, the Corrections Department confirmed. The prison doesn't track how many guards have gotten their vaccines, Felsted said.
The majority of men and women in the prison have received at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine: 78% in Draper and 68% at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, according to data provided by the corrections department.