Restrictions on Family Contacts Darken Holiday Season for Inmates

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“Needlessly cruel” limitations on contacts between incarcerees and relatives imposed since the outbreak of COVID-19, not only increase the chances of repeat offenses but have a negative impact on the emotional and physical health of family members, according to a pair of recently released reports.

The impact has been especially hard during the holiday season, says the Vera Institute of Justice.

“Many jails and prisons have in place a whole host of rules and prohibitions, that are seemingly designed to make staying connected to loved ones difficult,” said the Vera researchers, citing limitations on visiting hours, restrictions on written mail, and charges for video phone calls that few families can afford.

According to one report cited by Vera, Pennsylvania authorities in 2019 required mail sent to prisoners, including greeting cards, to be routed through a processing plant in Florida where it was photocopied and then sent back to inmates. The originals were destroyed.

Vera did not say whether the policy continues, but called these and similar regulations curtailing family contact across the U.S. correctional system “needlessly cruel” ― especially during the holidays.

“These needlessly cruel arrangements benefit private contractors and the prisons and jails that accept commissions,” Vera said. “Ultimately, these policies and practices serve to cut people off from their support systems; they are dehumanizing and traumatizing for everyone involved.”

In a separate roundup of research on the issue released last week, the Prison Policy Initiative cited a 2014 study of female inmates showing that incarcerees who maintained phone contact with relatives or children outside the prison were less likely to be reincarcerated.

Similarly, a 2020 survey of incarcerated parents showed that parent-child relationships improved when they had weekly phone calls.

“To incarcerated people and their families, it’s glaringly obvious that staying in touch by any means necessary — primarily through visits, phone calls, and mail — is tremendously important and beneficial to everyone involved,” wrote PPI researcher Leah Wang.

“Prison- and jail-imposed barriers to family contact fly in the face of decades of social science research showing associations between family contact and outcomes including in-prison behavior, measures of health, and reconviction after release.”

The Vera researchers argued that helping incarcerees maintain contact with their families and communities was an essential tool for reducing recidivism.

“It’s not rocket science that ripping people away from everyone who supports them is going to hinder them when they need to rely on that support when they go home, to stay safe and to stay free,” said Ryan Shanahan, director of the Restoring Promise initiative.

Both organizations documented a number of best practices already in use in some facilities that could serve as models for incorporating more “humane” approaches into correctional visitation policies.

A Vera initiative called Restoring Promise, developed in partnership with the MILPA Collective, a group spearheaded by former incarcerees, creates more open housing units that provide space for family-incarceree interaction.

The initiative is under development in six states.

The Restoring Promise units in South Carolina, for example, allows families to join incarcerees in the units and share meals. In a Connecticut juvenile facility, families can spend extended time with detainees, and staff are on hand to answer questions. In other prisons, some visiting areas have designated play areas with toys for children.

The PPI research paper said maintaining a variety of channels for personal contacts, ranging from in-person visits to video calling, not only can improve the quality of life for incarcerees but “help correctional administrators run safer and more humane facilities.”

The paper cited research in Iowa and Tennessee showing that tightening jail visitation rules led to an increase in disciplinary infractions and in assaults on correction staff.  Similarly, when authorities in  the Travis County, Texas jail banned in-person visitation, the facility recorded an escalation of violence and contraband.

Impact of Private Firms

The spreading use of fees by private firms contracted by corrections facilities undermines the expanded access offered by communications technology such as video calls or email, both organizations said.

“Sadly, the promise of these new services is often tempered by a relentless focus on turning incarcerated people and their families into revenue streams,” wrote PPI’s Leah Wang.

According to Vera, the COVID-19 pandemic has made an “already stressful situation” even worse for incarcerees and their families.

“Since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, many of the nearly two million people incarcerated haven’t seen their loved ones—not even on a video call,” Vera said.

“In facilities across the country, including one San Antonio jail, people who tested positive for the virus lost their phone privileges.”

The PPI paper says the persistence of COVID should persuade correctional authorities to ensure that prisoner-family contacts are expanded.

“As the pandemic wears on, families and incarcerated people should receive more phone and video time, fewer fees, and better mail options in order to preserve family ties and the critical benefits that result from family contact,” the PPI said.

Related Story: In-person visitations at Harris County Jail temporarily suspended due to COVID-19

The PPI research roundup can be accessed here. The Vera blog can be downloaded here

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