The bulletin board in the visiting area of the Massachusetts prison I visit is crowded with notices whose ominous wording rings out and sets an unmistakable tone. Prominently featured on these notices are words like ‘prohibited,’ ‘not allowed,’ ‘strictly forbidden.’ Visitors ‘must’ do certain things; they ‘must not’ do others. Signs sparsely but severely posted elsewhere on the walls remind the unwary family member of impending prison terms and fines for any encroachment of prison rules.
Notably absent are words that might put visitors at ease—words like ‘welcome,’ or messages suggesting that their efforts are ‘appreciated.’ Ironically, the one small placard that features the word ‘loved ones’ urges visitors, not to support their family member, but to report any drug use they see to the internal security police.
Caring families are a potential goldmine, not only for the inmate, but for a society that sorely needs ways to reduce recidivism and alleviate overcrowding in its strained-to-capacity correctional system. In fact, family support may be the most under-used and under-valued resource available, and virtually free of charge, to the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC).
I say ‘under-used and under-valued,’ for this resource can only function at its best if prison officials take steps to encourage and foster family ties. Unfortunately, that is far from the reality today. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, the message firmly conveyed to family members is that their presence is barely tolerated at best, and aggressively discouraged at worst. A first-time visitor may even fear she may end up incarcerated herself, so threatening and alien is the tone of every communication in this heavily guarded world--so frighteningly different from anything many have ever seen.
It comes as no surprise that people often give up after one visit, never wanting to repeat the experience. Sadly, the most competent and sensitive of family members may be the most easily lost, as they are likely to feel most vulnerable in the harsh new environment of the prison. But these very people might otherwise be best equipped to offer invaluable help with an inmate’s rehabilitation and preparation for release; these are the guides and counselors who could help him build toward a constructive, safe post-release life. When such valuable helpers are discouraged or driven away, their loss can only be sorely felt, both to society at large and to the lonely inmate who may languish in hopeless conjectures, as he goes months or years without hearing an encouraging voice from outside.
For those family members who do persevere, there are serious financial burdens to bear, as well as frustration, uncertainty, embarrassment and shame, at least some of which might be avoided. The resulting stresses all too often show up in divorce or separation, broken parental ties or bitterness between siblings-- a far cry from the much more desirable outcome: a life rebuilt, in the context of a family still strong enough to do its part in building a healthy, safe society.
Before the Visit: Financial Burdens
Many citizens are shocked to learn that items as basic as soap are not provided to prison inmates, or that inmates’ work is compensated at a system-wide high of three dollars a day. Given these realities, many a mother whose source of income has been suddenly lost through her partner’s conviction must not only deal with her own expenses and those of her children-- she must also struggle to provide funds for her incarcerated husband’s basic needs, and pay high fees for a whole range of services, like home or automotive repairs, which he can no longer help with. For family members who must come from as far as Florida or California, the costs of travel and accomodation add yet another heavy set of bills to pay. Rather than recognizing this compound burden, the system seems only to exacerbate it, by taxing every effort to maintain close family ties. Telephone rates, for instance, despite some recent relief for local residents, can still climb to over twenty times normal long-distance rates for out-of-state calls. Adding this all up, before they even reach the prison, many have already, literally as well as figuratively, paid a heavy price for a loved one’s incarceration.
Frustrations: Arrival and Beyond
Assuming a visitor has adjusted to the first shock of the conviction, she will surely want to see her loved one in person. The first step, and the easiest, is mustering the courage to drive cautiously past hundreds of yards of threatening razor wire, glistening ominously in sharp contrast with the drab surroundings, the grim K-9 vehicles, and posted warnings of unfamiliar sorts (at one institution, I understand that visitors are further warned of menacing dogs). But she will soon find that there is much more to learn. Since it can take an indefinite amount of time to be cleared for a visit at even a medium security institution, parents, siblings and spouses soon realize that they must line up in cars outside the grounds, beginning as early as two hours or more before they can drive onto the grounds, or three hours before they will reach the visiting room, if they want to avoid losing precious minutes of shared time. One wintery day, I found this ‘normal’ wait extended to a fourth hour, as men, women and children crowded into the small, bare processing room, waiting until nearly two o’clock for the visiting forms that should have been in their hands at one (a half hour after the grounds open). A broken window was admitting a constant barrage of frigid, January blasts, as visitors huddled uncertainly in their overcoats for the ninety minute wait. Several commented that the prison authorities deliberately left the repair undone, in order to increase visitors’ discomfort and discourage them from coming. Some feared having made the trip in vain, including at least two who had traveled a full day to reach the prison. Unfortunately, nothing in my experience belies their understandable suspicion; certainly nothing was done to inform these people of the reason for, or the extent of, the delay that day.
Next comes the screening process, which takes place in a small room called the “pedestrian trap.” Again, time is of the essence; if a visitor is sent back at this point for any reason, she may have an indefinite wait before she will be admitted. Over the last decade, visiting rules have become ever more stringent, so that a visitor must prepare meticulously and search her person, lest she may have forgotten to remove a tissue or an old theater ticket from her pocket, or have left a hairpin in place in her hair, or have forgotten that there is a small tear in her waistband. The ‘regulars’ make jokes about having special ‘prison clothes’: no underwire bras or metal fasteners, proper sleeves, few pockets. But they know that the metal detectors may go off at random, without there being any metal present, even when the visitor is wearing ‘prison clothes’ which have passed a dozen times before. Many bring an extra change of clothing, just in case the last item on the posted dress code, mysteriously forbidding ‘inappropriate’ dress, might be used to bar their entry.
Even at its best, this inspection process can become a temptation for abuse. I have been scolded for not pulling my socks down to expose my heels on one occasion—then scolded by a different correctional officer (CO) on the next visit precisely for carefully doing so. On one particular screening, I was challenged at every step: surely I was lying about not having pockets; my ears, it seemed, did not show clearly enough when I lifted my hair severely upward for inspection; my feet were not raised high enough, my mouth not open wide enough (to check for drugs, which I would likely not even recognize, let alone purchase or conceal). Perhaps the CO had some other annoyances to deal with on that day; I could think of no reason to single me out, since I strive to be both cooperative and respectful in every way possible .
In fact, I count myself among the initiated—those who have learned to take these irritations in stride. But unpredictable routines and sudden unprovoked grillings can be especially intimidating to the first-time or infrequent visitor. A great deal depends on tone. On one visit, a young woman whose eyesight was poor surrendered her glasses as required for inspection—only to be sharply berated for not hanging her sweater quickly enough, as she searched in bewilderment for the hooks which would allow her to do so. A rare moment of relief comes when one encounters the occasional CO who seems to realize that one can be civil, even respectful, and still maintain security. But the many who do not seem to feel this way all too often set the stage for mutual suspicion and resentment.
Together at Last?
In the visiting room, tension continues to simmer just beneath the surface. As earlier, orders to visitors are often barked in a fashion more reminiscent of boot camp training than even the most minimal social occasion. Whether or not inmates ever become accustomed to this, it comes as quite a shock to many visitors. Feet must be straight on the floor; signs of affection must be kept in check. Everything is monitored, from one’s posture to one’s need for a rest room. Orders on these matters are regularly punctuated with shouted threats that the visit “will be terminated” immediately if a visitor is ruled to have acted inappropriately—no small matter, since I am told that such banishment may last for six months or more. One particular CO’s shouted threats were so loud and so insistent that the sound reminded one of nothing more than the attack cry of some darkly humorous science fiction monster.
Over the years, allowable interactions between inmate and visitor have been progressively curtailed; now, an austere line of vending machines provides the only activity available on a visit: sharing the high-fat foods on offer—provided one can get them, that is. These machines can represent more than a casual service, since the inmate may miss his meal to spend time with his loved one(s). Still, I do not remember a time in the past nine years when all of the half dozen machines involved were functioning properly. Occasionally, the cards that allow visitors to use the machines are either not available at all, or cannot be refilled (cash is, of course, strictly prohibited). When several machines malfunction, which is not uncommon, losses on a single visit can quickly add up to thirty dollars or more. Refunds are also difficult or impossible to get, as letters addressed to the company responsible have been known to simply go unacknowledged and unanswered. For a budget already strained to the breaking point, these extra, unforeseen costs can be inexpressibly more stressful than the normal ‘minor’ loss of a dollar in a coke machine on the outside.
Visiting room COs can, perhaps unwittingly, inflict additional stress on a family just by the way they choose to enforce decisions. I have seen a mother and her small child sent brusquely away only moments after their arrival, because the child innocently walked over to the few children’s books (kept on hand for the use of just such children) without his parent. The mother’s appeals for clemency went unheeded, and she had only the time to give her husband a quick assurance that he should call home soon. Even this kind of hurried farewll is not always allowed. I can only imagine the effect of such abrupt dismissals on a marriage already deprived of all privacy and normal communication for years at a stretch—a marriage which, once again, might be the inmate’s best hope of a positive future life—but only if it can survive this ordeal. Plainly put, in these conditions many cannot.
Such arbitrary surprises can be chilling at best, infuriating at worst; and they all too often seem to be based on petty irritations rather than the very real need for security; a well-behaved two-year-old can scarcely pose a serious threat to the prison’s security, and one can only guess at the CO’s reasons for terminating the visit I mention in the last paragraph. Another story, where a CO seems to have been more interested in harassment than in security, involves the strict count kept at a medium security facility where inmates are allowed five visits per week. At this prison, a full day’s stay counts as two ‘visits’—one from two to five o’clock, the other from five to the close at eight-thirty. In one case, a woman was admitted to the visiting room at 4:59 p.m., one minute early for the evening visit she had come for. Only later, when she was turned away the next evening, did she learn that the one minute had been entered as an afternoon visit, in spite of the firm assurances she had been given to the contrary.
In yet another case, a woman was given faulty information for no justifiable reason, perhaps as a misguided practical joke. The woman arrived and waited nearly an hour with no sign of her incarcerated partner. When she approached the officer on duty, she was told matter-of-factly that the man had already come, and had simply left, apparently not wanting to see her. In fact, the story was false; the inmate arrived ten minutes later, eager to see his partner, and explaining breathlessly that he had been detained by another correctional officer who had required him to wait for a delayed routine service. A less dedicated or trusting visitor might have believed the officer on duty. And as a result, a quickly forgotten prank by this officer might have had ruinous effects on an already tenuous family bond.
Virtually every aspect of the prison system adds this kind of uncertainty to the heavy toll already taken by financial burdens and rigid restrictions. My first telephone call to the prison to ask what rules applied for visits brought a response that sounded more like a series of monosyllabic grunts than an answer—fortunately, the inmate I was to visit was able to fill me in on at least some of the details by letter. The rest, I was left to discover through sometimes grim experience.
Guesswork and uncertainty are all too often the order of the day. For example, the telephone system regularly malfunctions. At best, crucially needed calls from inmates are conducted under difficult conditions: lack of privacy (all calls are recorded), regular interruptions from an anonymous female voice recording reminding callers of the monitoring, and a strict twenty-minute limit. But to make matters worse, these calls can be erroneously cut off at any point, leaving an “I love you” half said or news from home interrupted in mid-sentence. Two memorable calls of mine have been cut off immediately after we had both said ‘hello’; since connection fees are high, our sole exchanged word is costly when that happens. And it can happen repeatedly, forcing the family to fund three or more connection fees in order to finally get the allotted twenty minute time. At the best of times, I tend to spend my precious minutes sitting stock-still, lest any move I make might trigger one of these frequent malfunctions. And as I maintain this statue-like pose, my mind is racing every moment, to find positive things to say, and make sure I avoid introducing any weighty subject during the last precious minutes of the call, lest misunderstandings arise that we will have no chance to correct.
Uncertainty reigns in the mails as well. Letters sent to an inmate can be returned undelivered for the ‘offense’ of containing items as harmless as a single postage stamp, a xeroxed magazine article or a brief newspaper notice about a church supper—but again, this depends on the CO who is making decisions on a given day, since the rules appear to be largely a matter of guesswork. And as stringent as the real (unpublished) rules seem to be, some CO’s take it upon themselves to go beyond them. One very important letter was returned to me unopened, simply checked as ‘refused.’ The required paper explaining the reason for the rejection was not present—in fact, there can have been no reason beyond the whim of the officer on duty, since the letter had not been opened at all for inspection of the contents. In fact, it contained urgent information about a family decision, which I only learned several weeks later never reached my loved one’s hands.
A similar slippery, uncertain logic pervades all too many encounters with prison staff. With strict limits on what an inmate may keep, visitors often have to pick up property, for instance books or magazines that exceed the limit of ten for any inmate. This seemingly simple task once again provides a fertile ground for insecurity, uncertainty, delay, frustration and ‘practical jokes.’ I have known it take up to three tries on subsequent visits to actually be allowed to collect a small bag of goods. One visitor, requesting such a package on a Friday, was told it was not a property pick-up day. When she asked what days were allowed, the list she was given included Friday. But when she gathered her courage to point out that it was Friday, she was told quite bluntly, “Well, not this Friday.” Even when the property system is functioning at its best, timing provides one more cause for worry. Routinely, the visitor is left waiting for some time after making her request, only to be called away at exactly the time that she needs to be present to receive that all-important visiting request form. Once again, whatever the intention, many seem to feel that this is a deliberate strategy, perhaps to discourage such ‘pesky’ requests and further inconvenience family members.
Special patience is needed when a CO decides to use ridicule in addressing a mother, sister or wife whose life is already deeply scarred by the stigma of having an incarcerated relative. Family members who must as a matter of course communicate in riddles, avoid questions and even endure the condemnation of their friends, are poorly equipped to face yet more taunting and humiliation at the hands of correctional personnel. Take the days that the visiting room officer, instead of handing out the visiting forms in order to those who have waited hours, decides to toss them down and say “Fend for yourselves!” then stands back smiling, arms folded, obviously amused at the chaos and bickering that inevitably results as desperate people vie for position in line. Or the times when an officer, asked a polite question by a worried visitor, simply stares at her, making it clear he has heard before he turns away in silence. Or the crude jokes made when a pair of newlyweds kiss an agonizingly painful good-bye in the visiting room. Or the ‘fun’ enjoyed by the officer, but not the visitor, when she is deliberately given false information about a rule, then rebuked for acting in good faith on that information. Of course, these humiliations are minimal, compared to the thought of the public shaming we hear the inmate himself must endure, for instance during the required strip search after every visit or before any rest room use during a visit. Recently, one officer shouted out gleefully, and repeatedly, “Strip search!”, pointing publicly at an inmate who had asked to use the rest room, until all eyes in the crowded room were drawn to the waiting man. I can imagine the family’s feelings as they helplessly watched their brother, father or cousin subjected to this unnecessary public humiliation.
Of course, the problems of visitors are minor inconveniences, compared to the life style the inmate himself has to endure. But they do suggest, quite unambiguously, that family members ‘deserve’ punishment. In looking at this assumption, which correctional officers’ actions often seem to convey, one must remember that many family members have never been accused, let alone convicted, of even minor wrongdoing. With this in mind, the presence of visitors might best be seen as volunteer support for building a safe society; not as an irritation or a threat to security.
Helping the Inmate Plan for Re-entry: An Ever-tightening Circle
Some families remain grimly determined to help their loved one through the prison ordeal whatever the cost to them, both materially and psychologically. They want to help him plan for whatever productive future that he may be able to eke out in the face of the lifelong stigma of his conviction. But here again, the grip of prohibitive restrictions has tightened over the years. Articles of clothing sent from home, a source of some minimal sense of dignity and connection with family in the past, were banned in 1998. Books cannot be sent directly, and policy in that area has recently become even more restrictive, with only a small list of providers allowed. Meanwhile, even books from an approved source may simply disappear--the bookstore’s records may show it was sent, and tracking information may confirm delivery, but mysteriously, the book never reaches the inmate. The very few other purchases allowed on behalf of an inmate are subject to the same danger. And when such items disappear, letters from a family member asking for redress will also quite typically vanish without a trace, becoming as invisible as the missing property itself.
Most important, and most painful for many, is the lack of opportunity for development or education. Despite the virtual nonexistence of rehabilitative programs in the system, families are barred from stepping in and providing such training at their own expense. Recently, yet another tightened regulation has been introduced, limiting even informational printouts from Internet sources to five printed pages. Essentially, access to virtually all sources of personal development and learning have been gradually being whittled away.
One community organization in the state has worked to facilitate college level correspondence courses, and they are to be applauded for their efforts. However, their programs to date had only reached four institutions by the middle of last year, and they have allowed for only academic college courses. With vocational training so desperately needed by many inmates, some families would jump at the chance to sponsor correspondence courses in the kinds of practical areas that could help so many of their loved ones find work, or even keep abreast of changing requirements in the skilled jobs for which they were once qualified. However, with computer access now required in virtually all such courses, and with prison regulations strictly forbidding even the minimally required video components for the courses, families typically run into a brick wall and have nowhere to turn as they try to promote the inmate’s development and help him find a safe, useful place in society after his release.
The Price We All Must Pay
The picture overall is quite clear. In the nine years I have been visiting in the system, every regulatory change has been negative: some ‘privilege’—some form of access, some way a family could be supportive—has been suspended, forbidden, canceled or discontinued with each change, while the arbitrary and inconsistent application of regulations in areas like mail continue to be a source of confusion and frustration. I am somewhat saddened to say that this includes the past year, during which the new DOC leadership has made very welcome statements suggesting that the system needs to become more humane. As this trend continues, it represents an ever-growing tangle of obstacles to family members’ efforts on behalf of a positive future, both for their incarcerated member and for society as a whole.
For many of us, there is no choice but to trudge on, often for years, silently watching a beloved son, brother, husband or fiancé warehoused, able to do virtually nothing to grow or to prepare for his future, and in fact watching him lose touch over time with even the basic skills he may once have had—all this, in a dangerous, anger-filled environment, which prompts worry for the inmate’s safety as a very real defining feature of daily life for family members.
Again, the wary and the determined will cling to every hope they have. But the others—those who are timid or ashamed, those who feel the stigma of incarceration rubbing off on them during visits—who feel the culture shock is too great or the burden of worry too heavy—are worn down by the ever-more-dreary months or years, and feel they must separate from their family member to maintain their own mental health. When this happens, the good they could have done, for the inmate and for all good citizens everywhere, is lost.
A Few Solutions
Of course, every reasonable person realizes that security must be maintained at a correctional institution; in fact, the visitors I have met have been more than willing to both understand and comply with necessary security measures, even when the zeal with which they are enforced is taxing at best. Likewise, a dress code is surely appropriate; and the banning of conjugal visits or furloughs in the present system may be unavoidable, despite the damaging effects of long incarceration on marriages and other family relationships.
Still, many small things could be done even now to take advantage of the resource that families offer the DOC; most would come at a small cost that would be more than offset by the inevitable reduction in prison population over time
For a start, I am sure visitors would feel grateful, and very much more at ease, if they were given a simple, modestly produced brochure, assuring family members that their support for their incarcerated relative is welcome and appreciated, and that the correctional staff realizes that the vast majority of family members and friends want to cooperate with officials as they help inmates prepare to become fully productive members of a healthy society. Rules could be set out in a form that acknowledges that most visitors have every intention of observing prison policies and conforming to security regulations. The same information could be made available on the Internet, to reduce the cost of printing and mailing. Needless to say, the rules and procedures outlined in such a brochure ought to be the same ones the visitor actually finds consistently applied within the prison’s walls.
Minor procedural changes would also help. For instance, to start the day off on a less frenetic and stressful note, the visiting form system could be revised in any of a number of ways, including making forms available on-line, and/or developing an expedited path for processing regular visitors who have undergone an extensive background check and could then be accorded some level of trust. Likewise, it could become prison policy to conduct the physical screening process in the positive way already practiced by a very few officers. Something as simple as a routine ‘thank you’ to cooperative visitors can make a world of difference. As is, some find it hard to accept what seems like a default assumption on the part of correctional staff, that every visitor must be a potentially criminal enemy, determined to devise ever more subtle tricks to circumvent rules.
In the visiting room, rules could be explained, and even warnings given where needed, in a normal speaking voice; personnel could be trained to avoid interactions that embarrass or ridicule visitors. Jokes at the visitor’s expense could be especially discouraged. The vending machines and cards could be maintained in working order, contracting the operation out to a new business venture if need be. Healthy alternatives to the current foods could be provided (several years ago, apples and whole wheat sandwiches were still occasionally to be found behind the plastic vending windows). Returning to a practice only recently curtailed, at least at some institutions, Polaroid pictures taken and paid for by inmates could again be routinely allowed, recognizing that these pictures are the only precious souvenir a mother, spouse, sibling or child had (until recently) to remember her precious moments with her son, husband. brother or father. Since inmates have always funded and operated this now all-but-forbidden activity, it can hardly represent a burdensome expense or work load for the prison.
In fact, after a careful review, a few other simple activities might be approved for visitors and inmates with strong behavioral records, such as the permission to share photos or a musical recording from home. This last suggestion goes light years beyond the current possibilities, where even a change of seating position or posture during a visit may be cause for disciplinary action. It would be worth exploring whether permission for these minimal kinds of interaction could be given without posing a security risk in medium-security environments, since they would represent an important lifeline for both inmate and visitor. Even within the current rule system, every effort could be made to allow expressions of affection between married or committed partners, rather than treating these as the wayward acts of ill-advised teenagers, or worse, as fodder for crude jokes. In fact, any ‘real’ contact with family life that could be allowed would go a long way toward providing urgently needed healing for relationships scarred by the trauma of a lengthy incarceration.
Finally, as a concerned family member, I would be delighted to see some way that prison officials could engage in an ongoing dialog with supportive friends and family about issues of critical importance to the family and to the inmate’s future. Such negotiation might, for instance, open the possibility of adjusting rules to allow families to provide learning materials for their loved ones, on a case-by-case basis. The recent public debate over a Citizen Advisory Board might be a hopeful sign, as it shows that ordinary citizens are interested in an open dialog with correctional professionals. In addition to the invaluable practical gains it would bring, a policy of open and honest communication could do much to dispel the current atmosphere of mutual distrust, stress, fear and frustration, in favor of a positive, cooperative mood.
The results could be surprising: just a few quite basic changes might benefit everyone; the CO’s day could become easier, the visitor’s life less stressful, and the prison a generally safer, more positive place. Most important, it could help make high rates of recidivism a thing of the past.
[i] Readers familiar with current prison conditions may understand my decision to use a pseudonym. I can only assure the reader that all examples I mention here are either first-hand experiences of my own, or events I have witnessed in person; for convenience, I present visitors regularly as females (she, her) and inmates as males (he, him, his); of course, most of the issues discussed hold across gender lines and apply regardless of gender. Finally, I would welcome any correspondence addressed to me via the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition.