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Don't Cut Off Prisoners From Their Families

By TERRY A. KUPERS and CASSIE PIERSON

March 6 2002 

Three-year-old Michael regularly visits his mother in prison. He plays with her on the floor, gets reassuring hugs while sitting on her lap and kisses her goodbye when it's time to leave. But if the California Department of Corrections gets its way, Michael will be able to visit his mother only through a glass partition and talk to her over a telephone--no touching, no kisses. 

The Corrections Department has scheduled public hearings in Sacramento about proposed changes to visiting regulations that would profoundly affect prisoners, their families and the communities to which most will someday return. These proposed "tough on criminals" regulations would cause tremendous hardship on thousands of children, family members and friends of people in prison. 

Under the new visiting rules, prisoners convicted of "possession for sale and/or manufacture" of drugs would be forbidden contact visits for the first year of their confinement. This would particularly affect California's women prisoners, 42% of whom serve time for drug-related crimes and at least 80% of whom are mothers. In addition, all visitors, children included, would have to undergo criminal background checks before being approved for visiting. Male prisoners, regardless of their crimes, would be forbidden from holding children older than 7 on their laps during visits. Under the new regulations, only immediate family and attorneys would be able to visit prisoners who are in so-called security housing units--confined to their cells 23 hours a day because they are accused of violating prison rules. Corrections does not recognize domestic partnerships or same-sex relationships as family. 

Consider the extreme psychological damage to a person denied contact with the outside world for years at a time. According to Corey Weinstein of the watchdog group California Prison Focus, secure-housing prisoners "already live under excessively harsh conditions as stated by the United Nations Committee Against Torture. It is cruel to deny them visits with friends and loved ones." 

How much punishment is enough? 

There is strong consensus among mental health professionals that maintaining family and community ties through visitation increases a prisoner's chance at rehabilitation. 

Similarly, quality visitation between children and their parents increases the likelihood that families can heal and move beyond the prison experience. 

Because of separation from their parents, children of prisoners are six times more likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system themselves. The proposed new policy would only make children's relationships with their imprisoned parents more fragile. 

The proposed changes in visiting rules amount to cruel and inhuman punishment for both prisoners and their loved ones. And by lessening the chances for rehabilitation and consigning another generation to the system, the rules are not in the long-term interests of the rest of us. 

Terry A. Kupers is a psychiatrist and author of "Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It" (Jossey-Bass, 1999). Cassie Pierson is a staff attorney with San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners With Children. 
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