The Clampdown on Visiting Loved Ones in Prisons and Jails Isn't Helping Anyone

Evie Litwok felt the necessity of visitors when she served time in the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee, Florida. While she was in solitary, visits were cut down to one hour per week, and prisoners were both forbidden physical contact and shackled during visitation. When a woman housed with Litwok found that her husband was unable to afford the trip across state lines for a mere hour, she bashed her head against the cement wall until it was bloody. “Those who survived the best were women who had contact with family,” said Litwok.

Giovanni Reid, who grew up in Pennsylvania prisons, told AlterNet what it meant to have visitors during his 26 years behind bars, beginning when he was 16. He said, “Visitors are absolutely necessary. They connect you to something more meaningful in your life.”

Likewise, Karter Reed, who served 20 years in Massachusetts prisons, credits part of his successful transformation to the 70 visitors who drove miles to support him. “I learned how to be a responsible male adult role model in prison visiting rooms with my nieces and nephews,” he said when he testified at a Department of Correction (DOC) 2016 public hearing. He was there along with many advocates to protest the rollout of new visiting procedures in Massachusetts state prisons that limit the number of visitors per prisoner and insist on a pre-approved visitor list. Reed’s 23 cousins, all of whom came to visit him, would have been out of luck.

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“First Day Out.” Photo courtesy of Karter Reed (center L, white T-shirt).

So, here’s the conundrum. In-person visits have a positive impact on prison safety and are crucial to those behind bars. Furthermore, research says that visitation is one of the most important keys for prisoner re-entry and that it significantly reduces recidivism, i.e., the return rate to prison. Why, then, are we seeing more repressive restrictions, and, importantly, shutting the door to real visits as institutions try to replace them with video visitation?

Is It Really All About the Drugs?

Department of Correction officials across the country will tell you it’s all about preventing contraband.

Christopher M. Fallon, assistant deputy commissioner of communications at the Massachusetts DOC, said in a telephone interview that K2, or synthetic marijuana, and the narcotic Suboxone are brought in on Listerine breath strips. “The inmates were paying people to bring in drugs, muling in the drugs,” he added, attempting to explain why Massachusetts has increased surveillance. The state also has canines at facilities, sniffing visitors for drugs when they pass through security.

To “crack down on contraband during visitations,” Maryland prisons recently banned hugging and kissing. In New Hampshire, in addition to limiting physical contact, per WMUR, board games with prisoner’s children are now banned at state institutions, and “vending machines have been removed because they were used to hide drug transfers,” said prison officials.

Prisoners are currently strip-searched after every visit in many states, in large part to check for smuggled-in drugs. But perhaps the most egregious practice, as of July 2017, is that in Florida, strip searches of visitors are now allowed. According to the Florida Times-Union, “Visitors who set off metal detectors must consent to unclothed searches of their person and their vehicles, or forfeit visitation privileges.” This means that in “2,350 searches of visitors… at 16 facilities,” hundreds of strip searches took place, which the women described as “degrading.” The Times-Union’s analysis determined that “more than 97 percent of nearly 200 searches in a three-month span were conducted on females.”

So far no lawsuits have been filed against Florida’s DOC that AlterNet could uncover, but the Times-Union reported that Amy Fettig, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, decried the practice of strip searching visitors and said it was certainly “unnecessary.” James Pingeon, an attorney at Prisoner Legal Services in Massachusetts (PLS), said in an interview that “PLS is concerned about whether the new [MA] visiting policies comport with the law because they seem to be an exaggerated and unreasonable response to the problem of smuggling drugs into the prison.” In 2015, New Hampshire “tried to stop Suboxone coming through prison mail by banning greeting cards, drawings and colored paper.” The American Civil Liberties Union is battling the state over the policy, which they say particularly hurts children.

Research has shown that drugs are a problem in prisons. But according to the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts, correction officers have a large part to play in this, as well. They cite some big drug busts across the U.S. involving prison staff. Also, there were mixed results in the reduction of drugs and violence inside prisons when California recently piloted a program to curb contraband costing $15.3 million.

Video Visitation

Prison activists counter corrections with their own ideas about why in-person visits have become so repressive. Lois Ahrens, founder and director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, who has communicated with thousands of prisoners from every state across the country, calls it “extreme control.” In a phone interview, Ahrens said, “All of this is a way of trying to dissuade people from being actual visitors, in order to push the idea of video-calling. The ability to have real contact, to sit near each other, eat something together, can’t be replaced by video, which costs more money and is much more surveilled.”

Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), said in a series of email communications and on the phone that video visitation is now in more than 35 states. A kind of low-quality Skype for prisoners, PPI reported in 2015 that video visitation can cost up to $1.50 per minute.

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Photo via The Daily Dot (originally photo from Convict Soap Box).

Bertram explained that “at least 130 jails across the U.S. have implemented video calling and also banned in-person visits…. This doesn't count the number of facilities that have cut back on in-person visits without banning them outright.” She added that such communication might make surveillance easier, but “when you introduce technology that allows people to visit with loved ones remotely, it opens up opportunities for facilities to take advantage of families.”

In Knoxville, Tennessee, according to a report from the grassroots organization Face to Face Knox, “The replacement of family visits with video calls has resulted in more violence, no drop in the rate of reported contraband, and higher levels of disciplinary infractions, putting more demand on staff.”

Is Legislation the Wave of the Future?

Several states, said Bertram, including Illinois, Texas and California, have passed laws to forbid video-visitation from being the sole way families can communicate with their loved ones. Massachusetts and New Jersey are also trying to pass such legislation.

Brian Dolinar, program director at Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center, who was part of the battle to fight off the video-visitation only policy in Illinois, says that corrections discourages in-person visits with a hostile visiting environment far from prisoners’ homes. He continued, “By increasing video visitations, prisons can make the in-contact visit so repressive that it’s unappealing and therefore they push people onto video systems.”

Facts are clear. Over and over, studies show that bans on in-person visits “make jail more dangerous, do nothing to stop the flow of contraband, and strip money from the pockets of families.” But it may take more litigation and law after law in state after state to keep prison visits intact.

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