Editorial: Prison visits
Harsh new rules threaten public safety
Imagine a young mother in prison on drug charges. She wants to maintain contact with her 2-year-old toddler, who's living with her grandmother. Proposed new state prison visiting rules say inmates convicted of drug sales or manufacture won't be allowed any contact visits for the first year of their confinement. The inmate mother may talk to her son by telephone and look at him though a glass partition. But she can't hug him. She can't kiss him. That's a form of punishment that extends tragically beyond the mother, to the innocent child as well.
There's more. Under the proposed rules, after a year, the young mother will be allowed to embrace or kiss her child but only at the beginning and end of each visit, and only for a period not to exceed five seconds.
The rationale for these harsh rules is hard to figure. Inmates who maintain relationships with family and friends on the outside are far more likely to succeed when paroled. They are less likely to commit new crimes and return to prison. Research on that point has been consistent over many years. Yet despite the public safety value, tough new visitor rules proposed by the Department of Corrections will make it much harder for inmates in California to maintain those ties.
The rule change prohibits male inmates, regardless of their crime, from holding anyone above age 6 on their laps, even if the visitor is their own child. Children over age 7 must bring a picture ID.
Prison officials say the new rules are intended to respond to a 1997 state law that declared prison visits a privilege, not a right. The rules will standardize visitation procedures from facility to facility and, most important, improve security by cutting down on drug smuggling. In justifying the harsher treatment, officials claim that 52 percent of illegal drugs found in prison come from visitors.
No doubt there's a need to better control drug trafficking behind bars. But there's also a need to encourage one of the most successful rehabilitative tools available -- family visits.
Law-abiding visitors who travel hundreds of miles to meet with family members regularly endure long lines, humiliating body searches and other indignities. The new harsher rules mean they will face still more hassles. Some will just stop coming.
That's a concern for all of us because most inmates
will leave prison one day. Those who have lost contact with their families
are a bigger threat to the community than those who have not. Prison authorities
evaluating the new rule changes need to consider that.