Social Justice Matters: Prison Visitation

How many of us have seen a movie or a television show with a prison visit scene? It’s kind of a staple whenever a character goes to prison. At some point, we will see family members or friends visiting in prison. They are ushered through a series of doors and bars, they sit in a room crowded with other people or maybe they pick up a phone on the other side of a transparent divider, and let the prison visit begin! Maybe it’s comic, maybe there’s bathos, it depends entirely on the creator, but the underlying assumption is that when someone goes to prison, people visit.

Have you ever tried to visit someone in prison?

I’ve got news for you: It’s hard work. Very hard work. And the people who disproportionately experience problems are, unsurprisingly, the people most likely to be related to, in relationships with, or friends with people who are likely to end up in prison.

The first step with a prison visit is finding out where someone is imprisoned. This sounds simple, but it’s actually not. Prisoners are repeatedly transferred, often with minimal notice. If you visited someone at one facility three months ago, that person might have been moved to a different facility. You may have been notified, you may not have been. You have to track down someone who will know, and you have to get the person’s prisoner number so that you can contact the prison to set up a visit.

So, you have found out where the person you want to visit is being held. That location might be highly remote. It could be across the state. It could be in an area with no public transit. That’s too bad for you; prisoners aren’t held at your convenience. For some people, visiting family and friends in prison is just not logistically possible, period. Years may go by. People may not see people until they are released. That feels really awesome when your friends and family die in prison.

But, let’s assume that the person you want to visit is in a facility that you can access. What is the prison’s visitor policy? Prisons usually have limited days and hours for visits. You do not just show up at a prison and expect to see someone. You need to call ahead. Many prisons have particularly byzantine systems for doing this. For example, you may need to call the prison exactly 30 days in advance, and there’s a three hour window. If all the phones are jammed with people trying to get visitation and you can’t get through for three hours and one minute, too bad. You are out of luck. Likewise, if you manage to get a phone call in the allotted time but all of the visitor slots are taken up, too bad. Try again during the next window. And hope your prisoner doesn’t move in the 30 days it takes between the time you set up the appointment and the time you go.

Assuming you manage to get an appointment and get to the prison, there is still no guarantee that you will be able to see someone on the day of your appointed visit. The prison could be in lockdown, with no visitations allowed. The prison, by the way, will probably not bother to contact you about this. You will find out when you show up for a visit and are sent home. Or visitations are allowed, but the person you are visiting is not allowed to see visitors. The person you are visiting may have been put in solitary confinement or have privileges revoked.

This is part of the system used to ‘control’ behaviour in prisons. A complicated series of punishments and rewards, many of which are based on the whims of guards, not on anything prisoners actually do. Men of colour in particular are likely to be penalised for doing nothing other than existing. Look at a guard the wrong way, get thrown in solitary. Ask the wrong question, have your television privileges revoked. Fail to follow an order precisely, have your mail confiscated. Prisoners are deliberately kept in a state of fear and confusion, and if you visit on the wrong day, you can be drawn into this complicated web. You will be told that the person you wanted to visit is having ‘behavioural problems’ and won’t be available for a visit, and you will be sent home.

Maybe you give up on visiting. Maybe you’ve tried and been burned too many times. So you think that perhaps you will send some mail. Do so in full awareness that all prison mail is opened and inspected, that contents of packages are confiscated at random. Even if you follow prison policy, things that are supposedly allowed under the policy can and will be taken out of your care packages. It depends entirely, again, on the whims of the person who is processing mail on any given day.

Even when you send packages through third parties, a method that is supposed to guarantee that your mail gets through, things are dicey. I used to work at a bookstore, and one of the services we offered was mail order books for prisoners, because the rule in California is that prisoners can only receive brand new books, and they can only receive them from bookstores.

Following the directives for the given prison to the letter, I had packages returned, or just confiscated, with the prisoner not even being told that books were on the way and that they were taken. Other services that mail packages to prisoners on behalf of friends and family experience the same problem.

Remember, prison is about punishment and control. Anything that can be used against a prisoner, to control a prisoner, to abuse a prisoner, to remind a prisoner of exactly how worthless ou is in the eyes of the system, will be used. That includes visitors, it includes phone calls, it includes care packages and friendly letters. We can demand more consistency and oversight of the prison system, we can demand that things like visitations not be denied and that prisons have an easy to use system implemented for arranging visits, and prisons will call it a ‘security risk.’