Visitation in Prison
The following piece is a small portion of the “Responsible Prison Project” compiled by 5 Texas prisoners interested in improving the prison experience and helping meet the TDCJ mission. To see the entire report: http://www.businessinsider.com/five-texas-prisoners-do-things-differently-if-they-ran-prisons-2016-10
Visitation in Prison: Studies based on reduced recidivism consistently show that visitation is one of the most effective methods of helping to rehabilitate an inmate. TDCJ recognizes this. Therefore, much attention should be given by Texas prison administrators to making visitation as comfortable as possible, without violating security.
While TDCJ’s visitation rules are uniform, the application of them throughout all Texas prisons is not. TIFA performed a survey of families who have visited their loved ones in more than one Texas prison. The overwhelming majority of those surveyed agreed that visitation rules are applied differently at the various units and that interpretation of the rules is subject to unit administration.
Not only are the rules applied differently throughout TDCJ, the facilities and the refreshments available are not the same either. For example, Wynne Unit does not have outside visitation, even though it has the facilities for it. Darrington Unit’s non- contact visitation area is not conducive to visitation because it is extremely noise due to the lack of echo-absorbent material on the walls and ceilings and the Plexiglas covering the visitation screens, and the same is generally true for all TDCJ units built before 1987. Wynne Unit sells ice cream in vending machines, but most other units do not. Some units have sandwiches and salads available for purchase, but most units have only junk food.
The price of the refreshments is a serious issue also. For example, a recent visitor at Darrington Unit paid $1.50 for a “Nutty Bar”; this same item is sold in the unit commissary at a price of sixfor $1.45-which equates to a price discrepancy of more than 600%. Without question, the items sold at visitation are another example of price- gouging loved ones of inmates.This also raises the question of whether TDCJ is profiting from these vending sales.
.10TDCJ’s visitation policy states, «visitation is an integral component of the rehabilitation process and every effort will be made to ensure that visits are conducted under the least restrictive protocol available.”This statement is untrue, however. When compared with the visitation rules and regulations of other state prison systems and the federal prison system, TDCJ is one of the most restrictive inits protocol.
Another problem with visitation is overcrowding. Many families, especially during holiday weekends, may have to wait up to several hours for space availability before they can visit their incarcerated loved one. This discourages families from visiting. Part of this problem is the limited space available and TDCJ’s unwillingness to expand visitation areas, and part of the problem is that visitation is only permitted on Saturday and Sunday.
Due to the size and expanse of Texas, most families have to travel several hundred miles round trip just to see their loved one for two hours.11 This trip is quite expensive, averaging approximately $200 for gas, food, photos, etc., for inmate supporters to see their loved one. As a result, unless an inmate is fortunate enough to be in close proximity to his loved one, he does not receive visits regularly.
Visitation areas, especially contact areas, should be significantly expanded. Currently, allprofits from TDCJ’s inmate commissary are to be used tofund educational and recreational programsfor inmates. Each year, however, there is a surplus of at least
$5 million of thoseprofits that goes back into the State’s generalfund. Instead ofplacing
11 TDCJ acknowledges in its Visitation Rules and Regulations that “while it isrecognized that unit assignments may create hardships for visiting, assignments are based on considerations other than offender or family convenience.”
the funds of inmates’ Loved ones into the general fond, this money could instead be used to expand visitation areas by the purchase of portable buildings and/or providing a larger outside visitation area.
All visits should be extended from two hours to four hours in length, regardless of distance traveled. This would encourage visitors to drive the long distances-200 miles one way in many instances-to maintain a bond with their incarcerated loved one.
The objection regarding overcrowding would be moot if TDCJ would use commissary profits to expand visitation areas.
Considering TDCJ operates on the “least restrictive protocol” visitation policy, all inmates who maintain an S3 trusty classification status for more than one year should have all visits as contact visits instead of contact with only their immediate families as the policy is now.13 The current policy states that only S2-classified inmates (which are outside trusty inmates, housed in a trusty camp) are eligiblefor all visits to be contact. More than 60% of TDCJ’s population , however, are violent offenders and do not qualifyfor such classification; the highest classification they can earn is S3. These
inmates, however, are usually well-behaved. Therefore, if an inmate earns an S3 status and maintains that status for at least a year-thereby reflecting proper “institutional adjustment”-he should qualify for contact visits with all of his visitors. This would fall in line with the “least restrictive protocol” TDCJ claims to embrace. Other prison systems use an even lesser-restrictive protocol than this proposal. TDCJ would do well to
13 Exceptions would be made for inmates with visitation restrictions, such as no contact with children.
implement their policies. Doing so would promote positive behavior among the offender population and help reintegrate offenders into society by encouraging visitation most conducive to rehabilitation, according to studies on this subject.
Visitation days should be expanded beyond just the weekends. If visitation
were also allowed on Monday and Friday, for example, the overcrowding on Saturday and Sunday would be significantly alleviated. This would also further encourage visits with the inmates since employees who must work weekends would have the opportunity to visit during the week TDCJ should look at the many other prison systems that do this and implement their practices.
The prison visitation areas should provide wider, healthier food selections at all prisons. That may require the Legislature to enact laws requiring fruit, vegetable, and sandwich machines placed in all visitation areas, similar to legislation for school districts. Also, if TDCJ profits from vending sales, these kickbacks should be discontinued to decrease prices of vending machine snacks and to encourage inmate visits with no profit to TDCJ’s general fund.
TDCJ should also consider permitting families to purchase food to be delivered during the visit. Families could order food from Domino’s or Jimmy John’s, for example, pay for it before they enter the prison gate, and have it delivered to the prison during the visit. The meal could be run through the x-ray machine and inspected visually to ensure no contraband is present before being handed over to the visitor.14 Other prison systems permit such activities without security encroachments.
14 TDCJ will resist this because it is labor intensive. Officers are paid to do a job, however, like any other employee and should therefore have no problem earning the money they are paid.
Family activity opportunities, such as board games, should be provided by TDCJ in the visitation areas. Currently, children are provided coloring books and crayons, so providing board games should not be problematic. Such family activities should be actively encouraged.
Photos capture memories, and they are cherished by inmates and visitors alike. Currently, photos are taken by TDCJ staff one weekend per month from November through August and every weekend during September and October, at a cost o.f $3 per picture. This policy should be changed to permit photos to be taken every weekend so all inmates have the same opportunity to take photos with their loved ones.
Most officers treat the visitors with respect, but some treat the visitors as extensions of the inmate and therefore felonious themselves. Officers who may be scheduled to work visitation should be trained in how to treat visitors; they should be reminded that visitors are non-criminals in the criminal justice equation and should be treated with respect at all times. Visitors should therefore be allowed some avenue to make a formal complaint against officers working visitation, and once the officer receives three similar complaints, they should be permanently restricted from working visitation and proper administrative actions should be taken against them by TDCJ.
While it is unlikely that TDCJ would seriously review this idea, conjugal visits should be considered. According to a study done by Yale University, conjugal visits are permitted in some form in approximately 20% of all American prison systems (nine out of fifty-one, including the federal system). Conjugal visits would potentially reduce sexual misconduct in prison, and would also strengthen the family bond.
Video visitation should be permitted for visitors who are unable to drive long distances to see their loved ones, but this should in no way replace physical visits.