The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision allows inmate visitation at its 54 prisons, but there is not a law requiring the agency to offer the program.
A bill approved by the state Senate this week would change that.
State Sen. Luis Sepulveda, chairman of the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, sponsored legislation that would codify the inmate visitation program into state law. It would require correctional facilities and county jails to allow inmates to meet with visitors.
The Senate passed the bill by a 41-19 vote.
Sepulveda, D-Bronx, cited a National Institute of Corrections report that found the recidivism rate among inmates who had visitors decreased by as much as 25 percent.
Sepulveda's bill would require visiting hours "that are reasonably likely to accommodate persons traveling from within the state" and visits of "sufficient duration" for inmates and family members to "maintain relationship bonds."
The measure would allow video visitation, but it wouldn't replace in-person visits.
"While we support video visitation, the visits do not have the same quality as in-person visitation where family members can eat together, hold hands, play board games or go outside into facility yards and playgrounds," Sepulveda said.
The opponents included state Sen. Pam Helming, who questioned the need for the bill. Instead of the inmate visitation proposal, she urged her colleagues to support legislation that would combat contraband in state prisons.
Helming, R-Canandaigua, has introduced a bill that would require the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to establish a contraband screening plan. The bill has 11 cosponsors — one Democrat, state Sen. Diane Savino, and 10 Republicans.
During her remarks on the Senate floor, Helming expressed concern about the safety of visitors, especially children, due to more contraband being found in state prisons.
At Auburn Correctional Facility last month, 82 weapons were seized. Nearly half of the weapons were confiscated during a lockdown at the prison.
"We need better contraband screening," Helming said.
A similar bill requiring prisons to have inmate visitation programs has been introduced in the state Assembly. The Assembly approved the proposal in 2017, but it hasn't received a vote in the state Senate.