Isolation is a defining characteristic of incarceration, but there is a growing body of research showing an inmate’s contact with family and community is essential to reducing their likelihood of reoffending.
Unfortunately, as researchers Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf write in a new report for the Prison Policy Initiative, “most of today’s prisons were built in an era when the public safety strategy was to ‘lock ’em up an throw away the key.'”
The report, titled “Separation By Bars and Miles: Visitation In State Prisons,” found that building prisons in remote locations and enforcing a complicated regime of visitation rules has “placed unnecessary burdens on the family members left behind.”
Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Rabuy and Kopf found phone calls are the most common ways prisoners maintain relationships, with less than one third receiving a visitor in the past month.
They also found the majority of state prisoners (63%) live over 100 miles from their families. “Unsurprisingly,” they write, “distance from home is a strong predictor for whether a person in a state prison will receive a visit in a given month.”
The data showed that the percentage of inmates who received a visitor in the past month fell substantially as the distance from home increased. Almost 50% of prisoners incarcerated within 50 miles of their families had a visitor in the past month, compared to roughly 26% incarcerated between 101 and 500 miles from home.
The further the inmate is from their family, the greater logistical and financial challenges they face in arranging a visit.
The authors cite another report by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, that found “families must make logistical arrangements for the visit, including planning a trip during approved visiting hours, arranging transportation, securing child care for any nonvisiting children, and obtaining food and other supplies for travel and time at the correctional facility. ”
Visitation policies vary drastically between states. Aside from the distance, such policies can be major deterrents for visitors and make it hard for inmates to keep in touch.
New York City, for example, may tighten mail and visitation policies in the midst of its own wave of criminal justice reform, reducing physical contact to hand-holding and allowing packages to be received by inmates only if they are sent from, and contain products from, a pre-approved vendor. Other jails, such as the one in Travis County, Texas, have replaced in-person visitation with pay-per-minute video conference services provided by for-profit contractors like Securus.
While the Federal Communications Commission recently capped fees for jail phone calls, there is concern the companies may be successful in obtaining waivers to allow them to charge more. And even so, high fees are just the tip of the iceberg; the authors chronicle some of the other strict policies and hurdles facing potential visitors:
North Carolina allows just one visit per week for no more than two hours while New York allows those in maximum security 365 days of visiting. Arkansas and Kentucky require prospective visitors to provide their social security numbers, and Arizona charges visitors a one-time $25 background check fee in order to visit. And some rules are inherently subjective such as Washington State’s ban on “excessive emotion,” leaving families’ visiting experience to the whims of individual officers.
Lawmakers intent on surfing the current wave of criminal justice reform must make concrete acknowledgments, through policy, of the role that relationships play in rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.
In order for reforms to succeed in their goal of reducing prison populations, they need to address the conditions imposed on families that may want to stay involved in an incarcerated loved ones life, but find the obstacles to doing so too great.
Kopf and Rabuy recommend reducing the use of incarceration and halting prison expansion in favor of alternative sentencing programs in order to keep people in their communities and preserve social bonds at all costs. This includes ending the use of out-of-state transfers, which sometimes involve contracting with private prisons to hold inmates across state lines in an effort to cut costs and reduce overcrowding.
Furthermore, they suggest reforming visitation policies to make maintaining relationships easier and even encouraged. They recommend listening to recommendations from prisoners and their families and implementing programs like free transportation to remote facilities in order to make visitation easier.