New York state has fifty-four correctional facilities, which includes minimum, medium, maximum and “supermax” security prisons as well as prison-style drug rehab centers. These facilities are scattered across the state, most of them are in tiny towns, far from major cities. In fact, about 65% of the state prison population is housed in prison facilities in towns smaller than 10,000 people.
More shockingly, about half of the state’s prison population comes from New York City, itself located in southeast corner of the state, despite the vast majority being housed in facilities more than two hours away from home—some as far as eight hours away, near the Canadian border.
There are a number of factors that determine which prison facility a processed inmate is sent to, like which prisons have capacity for new inmates, which are better at housing certain types of offenders. But all of those kinds of factors are out of an inmate’s—and their family’s—control.
Studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates.
For New York City families, often coming from low-income homes and relying heavily on public transportation, finding the means to travel from the city to the prison to visit a loved one can be difficult. The state offers no free transportation as a public service, so instead bus companies have filled in the gaps. Tickets can be upwards of $100 per ride depending the distance traveled, and for really long distances passengers will take overnight buses or book hotels for a two-day trip. Visiting someone in prison is an event.
Producer Michael Simon Johnson took one of these prison bus trips to find out what the journey is like, how it affects the families making the journey, and even how the bus drivers themselves view their roles in the process.