Infowire: There is lots of red tape around prison visits. Here's how to untangle it.
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The goal of Infowire is to deliver information that’s hard to come by to the people who could use it most. In this case, it's families of prisoners.
There’s a long list of serious issues in prison that people would not stand for if they were happening somewhere else. In this context, visits might not seem like the most important thing, but they are crucial.
Visits are one way family members can provide some checks and balances to the prison system, a way to try to stay tuned-in to big problems. There's also plenty of research that shows visits helps prisoners transition back into the mainstream after release. In short, visits make returning to prison less likely for prisoners.
Even though it's important, visiting a family member in prison takes stamina. It can come with huge complications, difficulty, and expense, usually because of how the system is set up.
“You see where families give up”
For Lois DeMott, the only way she could keep tabs on how her mentally ill, 15 year-old son was being treated in adult prison was through these in-person visits. When her son was in a prison in the Upper Peninsula, that meant a seven hour drive each way and two days off from work.
The mismanagement of her son’s mental health issues while he was incarcerated turned DeMott into a well-recognized professional advocate for families of prisoners. She says the energy of trying to maintain a connection to a mentally ill family member in prison exacts a heavy emotional and physical toll. While her son was still incarcerated she told the ACLU, “You see where families give up, and don’t have the stamina.” But now DeMott wants those families to get in touch with her. The group she's started has some influence, and she's using it to focus more attention on what prisoners and their families want to see changed.
How much could video visits solve?
DeMott says when she meets with prisoners, many of them want more access to video visits.
Video visits could help families who can’t travel long distances to the many prisons in the Upper Peninsula, for example, but in-person visits have other benefits, like being able to check that your family member was free of bruises. That would be lost. Part of the reason video visits are in such high demand is because prisoners are placed so far away from families. The Department of Corrections does not take distance from family into account when it makes decisions about where to place a prisoner. It's just one practice some would like to see changed, but figuring out who the right person to go to with a complaint or even a suggestion is rarely easy.
Who’s in charge here?
Jails and prisons each have their own rules.
Prisoners spend a lot of time, easily up to a year, in jails instead of in prison. Each jail is run by the county where it’s located, and they each have their own rules about visits.
In general, these visitation policies are much more restrictive than the prisons. Visits are usually allowed once a week for about 15 minutes. In many jails, children aren’t allowed to visit.
Some jails, Washtenaw County Jail for example, allow families to come to the jail building but then use a video visit system. Families and prisoners don’t get to see each other in person even though they are in the same building.
DeMott says families concerned about visitation policies in jails should talk to the County Commission. Earlier this year, the Jackson County Sheriff proposed Jackson County Jail switch completely to a video visitation system. Families would have been charged for visits from home or more than one visit a week. The County Commission voted down the proposal in favor of in-person visits.
Whether it's an issue of distance, expense, visits being taken away from a prisoner, or something else, Lois DeMott’s group, the Family Particpation Program, wants people who are having trouble connecting with loved ones in prison to contact her group.
The group is working with the Department of Corrections on pilot programs to keep families connected to prisoners. DeMott also encourages families of prisoners to contact local elected officials about problems with visitation.
Private contracts can make calls and visits expensive for families:
Kathy Gourlay is another parent with a son still serving time in prison. She said one of the things that surprised her most about her son’s incarceration is how expensive it is.
Jails or the Department of Corrections often sign contracts with different companies for prison phone calls, emails and video visits. These companies pass the cost on to prisoner’s families and how much they charge varies widely. In some jails, every 15 minute phone call costs just shy of $15 dollars. Securus Technologies, the same company that many Michigan jails contract with, lowered what they were charging families of Chicago prisoners after negative attention and news reports.
Complaints about rates for phone calls and video visits should go to the Michigan Public Service Commission.
What’s worked other places?
An overarching issue with prison visits is that families see them as beneficial and many in the corrections system see them as a burden. Jackson County Sherriff Steven Rand says his view of visits comes from them being “a safety and a security issue” for his staff. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Rand says he's not convinced family visitation really does cut down on recidivism. “I personally haven’t seen it work like that,” he says.
It’s changing this way of thinking DeMott believes is most important. DeMott’s group, called the Family Participation Program, along with Michigan Citizens for Prison Reform, is trying to organize the families of Michigan prisoners around visitation and other things like solitary confinement. There aren’t many organized groups for families of prisoners in Michigan, but similar groups have had a lot of success in places like California, Chicago, and Washington D.C.
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*A previous version of this article didn't make clear the distinction between the group Lois DeMott is currently running, the Family Participation Program, and the group she co-founded, Michigan Citizens for Prison Reform.