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Old 10-04-2003, 03:24 PM
toi_ama toi_ama is offline
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Default Visiting in Prison

Visiting in Prison

Reginald A. Wilkinson, Director
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

Tessa Unwin, Public Affairs
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

Published in Prison and Jail Administration's Practices and Theory; 1999


The operation of a visitation program is an integral element of any prison system. Hundreds of thousands of relatives and friends visit inmates in prison each year. Experienced correctional managers know that visitation improves the prison environment, so all institutions encourage visits from family and friends. Visits give inmates something to look forward to, an incentive to participate in rehabilitative programs, and a mechanism with which to cope with prison life. While there are challenges to the security and of prisons and jails when visitors are allowed into the security envelope of an institution, and an elaborate system of rules and regulations govern the process, the benefits greatly outweigh the drawbacks.


There are several reasons that visiting with family and friends is encouraged in the prison setting. The most important becomes evident after release. The prisoner who has maintained contact with supportive individuals such as family and friends has a "safety net" when he or she returns to the community. Family and friends provide a feeling of belonging to a group. They often help released offenders seek and find employment and conduct themselves in a positive, constructive manner after release. Dickinson and Seaman note that social role theory asserts that when the desirable social roles are not maintained during incarceration, newly released prisoners are more likely to see themselves and to be seen by others in one of the negative roles ascribed to former convicts. These ex-convict roles are more likely to lead inmates back to criminal behavior.1 Visiting is also an incentive for good behavior, providing a powerful management tool. Prisoners are fully aware that the visiting environment for general population inmates is significantly freer than for those in disciplinary status.


There is also a downside to allowing visits for a confined population. Visitors are a primary pipeline for the smuggling of drugs and other contraband into a facility. Significant numbers of alert staff are required, not only to carefully supervise visits but also to conduct background checks and search packages.

Some inmates schedule their visiting in order to get out of job assignments, while others become depressed because they have no visitors at all. Some prisoners use the visiting process to make contact with potential crime partners or gullible new friends whom they later use to convey contraband into the prison. In many instances, prisoners first make contact with outsiders through pen pal organizations, then quickly exploit the friendship. Inmates also abuse the visiting privilege by convincing sympathetic visitors to bring them money or even participate in criminal activity requiring outside assistance. Certain visitors may be partners in crime who help the inmate to continue running illegal street enterprises while incarcerated.

An interview with a former warden who served at several Ohio prisons brought numerous examples of inmate "scams" to light. For instance, an inmate at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution convinced a female friend to help him set up a phony charity. The plan was to solicit money from churches. When arrested, the woman was found in possession of an entire office setup, including an addressograph containing the names and addresses of churches. Another Chillicothe prisoner, a former male model, had one female visitor so enthralled that she cashed in her burial account in order to deposit funds in the inmate's prison commissary account. A young man incarcerated at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility befriended an older couple who had read about his case in a local newspaper. The young man, accustomed to a comfortable upper-class existence, had killed his parents in a fit of anger. By the time his manipulation was discovered, the older couple had bribed an officer to take the prisoner money, sunglasses, and a fake employee identification card. The inmate had planned to simply walk out of the maximum security facility with other employees during a shift change.2

Emotionally Charged

A wise correctional manager knows that prison visiting is a sensitive and emotionally charged subject. Just as visiting provides a powerful incentive for good behavior, unfair treatment regarding visits, whether real or perceived, can create undesirable tensions. If a prisoner feels that his or her mother, spouse, or other family member has been unnecessarily hassled or in some way insulted, an outburst may result. Sensitivity training and professionalism are essential for staff involved in the visiting process.

Author Jess Maghan gives the following advice: "Correctional Officers must learn to be self-determining through personal and professional empowerment and a sense of dignity. They must realize that inmate rights improve the rights of officers and everyone can benefit from change. Correctional Officers can take pride in their flexibility because it leads to the capacity to manage, control, and supervise the diverse group of inmates for whom they are responsible . . . With this sense of empowerment, Correctional Officers truly appreciate the time-proven adage of 'accepting the things they cannot change, seeking the courage to change the things they can . . . and hoping for the wisdom to now the difference.'" 3(pp.59-60) Lori B. Girshick provides quotes from women visiting the California State Prison at Soledad. The women's words graphically illustrate the many emotions involved in the visiting process.

(Charlene) When I hit the visiting area . . . the first thing I do is pray that he's all right and that no unforeseen incident has occurred that would mess up our visit. Once I'm cleared . . . I block out the surroundings, the guards, prison clothes, etc. My attention is focused on the reuniting of our minds. It's a great feeling, and after the visit it's like I take on new strength even though I'm never sure of the exact day when I will visit again.

(Carrie) I think we're being punished as much as they [inmates] are. I think the system is designed to make it as difficult on us as possible because it hurts them. It's awful to have to stand outside and freeze for three hours waiting to get in, when they're [staff] sitting in a warm office looking at you.

(Cynthia) They're always threatening that if you don't settle your kids, you'll get a visit termination. What else can kids do but be kids? I feel bad that I have to tell [my daughter] you cannot run, you cannot do this, you cannot do that, you cannot, cannot, cannot.

(Vicky) There are things I get tired of, being there every week and telling them who I am. They can't find his file. They're rude. They humiliate you. It shouldn't be men doing this [searches] to women . . . it just shouldn't be, but it happens.4(pp.59-60)

The Community

Some community agencies and businesses are involved in the visiting process in various ways. Specialized bus companies offer regular charters to prisons from large cities, helping to alleviate the problems caused by long distances.

Local businesses such as motels, restaurants, and gas stations benefit from the visitors. But when protesting the siting of a new prison in their area, some people list the fear of prisoners' visitors disrupting their communities.

In many communities, volunteer visitors offer friendship to prisoners who have no other contacts on whom to rely. These mentors provide guidance and support while the individual is incarcerated and assistance with finding employment and a place to live after release.

Children in the Prison Environment

Bringing families together is a laudable endeavor. Yet one must wonder about the lasting effects on children of seeing a parent in prison, especially when the parent confined is the mother. Authors Robert R. Ross and Elizabeth A. Fabiano have argued that the variety of prison visiting arrangements is a reflection of the complex social and moral issues involved in the question of whether children should be separated from their incarcerated mothers or exposed to prisons. The effects of such visits on the mother and child when the visit ends, the feelings of other inmate mothers who do not have contact with their children, the effects on the child of seeing the often frightening physical structure of prisons, and the possible long-term effects on the child of living in a prison for short or long periods of time are all significant issues. Ross and Fabiano also stress that there has not been research on the effects of separating children, particularly infants, from their mothers while they are in prison.5

Innovative programs are springing up nationwide to counter the deleterious effects of prison visits on children. For example, the Girl Scouts of America has formed partnerships with some women's prisons to pilot scout troops behind bars. Incarcerated women and their daughters work together on projects, earning merit badges and learning how to be successful teammates. In turn, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction offers its training academy grounds and other resources to the Girl Scouts of America for use in outings and trainings.

In some women's prisons, overnight and weekend visits are granted as rewards for successful completion of parenting programs. This type of program, originating primarily in women's facilities, helps to "normalize" the prison visiting process. The Nebraska Center for Women has incorporated two unique incentive programs in its development of a family-friendly atmosphere. Its Mothering Offspring Life Development program offers longer, often overnight, visits for children of inmates who have met program requirements, including positive conduct. In 1994, this program was expanded to include an on-grounds nursery where expectant mothers can live and learn about childbirth and parenting while awaiting the birth of their own child. Infants born into the program may remain with their mothers for up to 18 months, provided the mother continues to meet work and conduct requirements. As a result of the level of accountability built into the program, there have been no reported incidents of any kind during its span of operation.6

Nuts and Bolts of Visits

Prison systems have myriad rules, regulations, and procedures regarding visits. Rules vary widely according to tradition, security needs, and the availability of staff and visiting space. Informing staff, visitors, and inmates of the rules and regulations ensures a smooth operation; perceived or actual inconsistency and arbitrariness add unnecessary tension to the process. A courteous, informed, and professional staff can make the visiting experience positive for everyone. Additionally, every effort should be made to inform visitors of restrictions or delays caused by special circumstances such as fog alerts, extra or extended counts, lockdowns, or disturbances.

Technology is also contributing to the prison visitation process. Various addresses on the Internet contain information and debate issues regarding prison visitation; some jurisdictions offer information on visiting rules, hours, and other information of interest to prison visitors.7

Visiting List

Most prisoners develop their visiting list while still in the reception process. Lists generally include family, friends, attorneys, and clergy. The list names the visitors, their address, their phone number, and their relationship to the inmate. After the individuals listed are screened and a background check is completed, some correctional systems actually interview visitors to determine their suitability for the prison setting. To avoid problems and conflict, prohibitions to visiting lists usually include known felons, former inmates, parolees, and probationers, vendors, and prison volunteers.

General Population Visits

The number, frequency, and duration of visits are limited by space, personnel constraints, scheduling, and security considerations. Upon arriving at the prison, visitors are required to present photo identification and may need to submit to searches (see "Searches" below). Visitors are also informed of what constitutes contraband and the sanctions in place to punish those who attempt to convey contraband into the facility. Children must be accompanied by an adult guardian. Many visiting areas contain vending machines, diaper changing stations, and play areas set aside for children.

Some inmates are granted visits for unusual situations such as to accommodate someone traveling a long distance or to address a family crisis.

The Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions, published by the American Correctional Association (ACA), require that provisions be made to ensure attorney-client confidentiality.8 Special arrangements for such communication encompass telephone communications, uncensored correspondence, and visits (ACA 3-4263). Whenever possible, separate visiting rooms are provided for inmates and their attorneys. This courtesy may also be extended to public officials and members of the media.

In the case of death row, administrative segregation, disciplinary detention, and protective custody inmates, security concerns outweigh concerns about family closeness. High-risk prisoners or those in disciplinary housing are often restricted to noncontact visits using screens, handcuffs, and leg irons at the discretion of the facility.

Conjugal Visits

About half of America's prison inmates claim to be married, and six states allow conjugal visitation (see Exhibit 39-1).9 In some jurisdictions, conjugal visits may be viewed as an unnecessary prisoner privilege and frowned upon by the general public and lawmakers. Jules Burstein compares this American conservatism to the more liberal attitudes in other countries and asserts that the acceptance of conjugal visiting outside the United States is generally attributable to two factors: a less puritanical and hypocritical attitude toward sex and a greater emphasis on the family as a primary and vital social unit. Many foreign cultures view such visits, along with home furloughs, as an individual's right.10

Exhibit 39-1 States That Permit Conjugal Visits as of January 1, 1997



New Mexico

New York


Source: Data from C. Camp and G. Camp, Corrections Yearbook 1997, p. 105, © 1997, Criminal Justice Institute, Inc.


Contraband is defined as anything not allowed into a particular facility and varies depending on the type and security level of that facility. Most systems divide contraband into two categories: major and minor. Major contraband consists of drug and alcohol, tools, weapons, explosive ordnance, ammunition, currency, and the like, whereas minor contraband often consists of nuisance items such as excessive food. Without question, narcotics trafficking presents the largest dilemma to correctional staff.

Inmates and their visitors have devised many ingenious ways to attempt to smuggle drugs into jails and prisons. Drugs have been found in many types of food: resealed pudding cups, instant soup packets, jars of peanut butter, hollow-out fruit pies, loaves of bread, and candy bars. Narcotics have been discovered discovered in diaper linings, tennis shoe heels, tubes of shampoo and toothpaste, talcum powder, magic markers, stamps, greeting cards, and hollowed-out books. Illegal substances have been thrown over institution fences in tennis balls, taped to trash cans and toilets in the visiting room, sent in with packages of clothing, and left in a knapsack at an outside crew worksite.


Searches are imposed to provide adequate safeguards against the introduction of contraband into correctional facilities. All searches should be conducted in a professional manner, without violating the legal rights of visitors and with due regard to human dignity. Searches may include a body cavity search, a strip search, a pat-down search, a metal detector search, or an x-ray. In most correctional jurisdictions, strip and body cavity searches must be approved by the warden or designee and are performed only when there is a specific reason to suspect the visitor has contraband. In most states, only a medical professional is permitted to conduct an intrusive body cavity search. Anyone who refuses a search is usually prohibited from visiting on that day. Some systems also utilize drug-detecting canines at prison or jail sally ports.

High-tech drug detection devices such as ionizer systems are also being introduced into prison drug and explosive detection arsenals. More sophisticated technology is on the horizon.

Visit Terminations

Violation of prison rules may result in a visit being terminated. The individual may also be suspended or removed from the approved visiting list. Violations include refusing to be searched, possessing contraband, attempting to convey contraband to an inmates, attempting to visit while intoxicated, falsifying identification, loaning identification to others, wearing inappropriate clothing, and engaging in prohibited physical contact, sex, or other behavior. If caught bringing illegal contraband into a prison, a visitor may be detained, arrested, and possibly prosecuted. Visitation may, obviously, also be curtailed or terminated in an emergency.

Facility Design

Visiting areas should be designed to provide for adequate supervision and control. Visiting rooms should provide a comfortable visiting environment that is neat and clean, has adequate light and ventilation, allows good visual supervision by staff, and includes separate lavatory facilities for visitors and inmates. Today's visiting rooms must also be fully accessible for those with disabilities.


Correctional agencies, prisoners, visitors, and society in general can all benefit from an efficient, humane, and secure visiting program. Regular contact with visitors significantly enhances an inmate's quality of life and establishes a lifeline between the inmate and the free community. Ties with family members, friends, and other loved ones are critical to inmates' successful return to the community, and visiting helps maintain these relationships.


1. G. Dickinson and T. Seaman, "Communication Policy Changes from 1971-1991 in State Correctional Facilities for Adult Males in the United States," Prison Journal 74, no. 3 (1994): 371-382.

2. Terry Morris, interview with author, December 17, 1996, Columbus, OH.

3. J. Maghan, "Styles of Control and Supervision," in The Effective Correctional Officer (Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association, 1992), 51-60.

4. L. Girshick, Soledad Women (New York: Praeger Publishing, 1996), 59-60.

5. R. Ross and E. Fabiano, Female Offenders: Correctional Afterthoughts (New York: McFarland and Company, 1986), 58.

6. Nebraska Department of Corrections, 1995 Annual Report (Lincoln, NE: 1995).

7. http://www.wco.com/aerick/prison.html

8. American Correctional Association, Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: 1990). Standard 3-4263.

9. Dickinson and Seaman, "Communication Policy Changes from 1970-1991 in State Correctional Facilities for Adult Males in the United States," 376.

10. J. Burstein, Conjugal Visits in Prison (New York: Lexington Books, 1977), 24.
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Old 10-04-2003, 05:05 PM
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mrskendrick2you mrskendrick2you is offline
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Hmm... very very interesting! I have not seen or spoken to my fiance in a year and a half, and have been trying to visit for months, but they keep saying that he didn't put me on the list, even though HE AND I both know that he has! I think it's pure b.s. but anyways this article was very informative. Thanks Toi!
A Thousand words could never express the amount of love and type of feelings I have for you, the ocean could never hold the tears I've cried, cuz I need you, the sky could never hold all the stars that I've wished upon wishing you were here with me or I was there with you. You are my heartbeat, my soul mate, my life. BABY, I LOVE YOU!
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Old 10-04-2003, 05:36 PM
toi_ama toi_ama is offline
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Maybe you could print and send this article to them, or write them a letter quoting some of the arguments for allowing visiting to get them kicked in the butt to let you visit. I hope you'll get to see him soon.
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