Thursday, April 4, 2002

Limiting prison visits

The California Department of Corrections is considering a new set of regulations that would tighten up the rules for visiting prisoners. The ostensible reasons are to clarify the rules and to reduce the smuggling of drugs into prisons. But the early drafts of the proposals seem unnecessarily harsh and calculated to break down family relationships. Given that most prisoners will eventually return to society, the proposals should be modified, or rejected entirely.

The department has several proposals under consideration. One would forbid "contact" visits - including hugging, kissing or embracing, even among family members - for any prisoner convicted of possession for sale or manufacture of drugs for the first year. After a year a prisoner would be allowed to touch family members, but only for a period not to exceed five seconds at the beginning and the end of the visit. This would be especially tough on female prisoners, 42 percent of whom are in on drug-related crimes and 80 percent of whom are mothers, according to psychiatrist and author Terry Kuppers.

Another rule would prohibit male prisoners, regardless of their crime, from holding anybody over the age of 6 on their laps. Any visiting child over the age of seven would have to get a state-issued picture ID card. Finally, prisoners confined 23 hours a day in security housing units, or SHUs, for violating prison rules, would only be allowed to have blood relatives as visitors. No friends, no domestic partners, no foster parents, just blood relatives. Some prisoners have none.

The department held a hearing in Sacramento March 8 at which more than 100 prisoner family members showed up and 60 spoke. Virtually all complained that the proposed regulations were unreasonable, designed more to dehumanize prisoners and breed resentment. We agree. Most California prisoners will eventually get out of prison. There's no guarantee, of course, but it just makes sense that those that have maintained relationships with families and loved ones will have a better chance of avoiding future crimes. Making contact with families and friends more difficult is more likely to breed isolation and contribute to recidivism.

It also could contribute to discipline problems within prisons. In addition, as Cayenne Bird, director of the prison reform group UNION (www/ has pointed out, Christians are admonished to visit prisoners and the sick, even those who are not family members.

These new regulations could make the work of prison ministries and individual believers more difficult. Prison officials say the new proposals are a response to a 1997 law, SB 2601, that among other things declared prison visits a privilege, not a right. According to Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Heimerich, the comments received at the hearing and by mail are now being reviewed.

The regulations, perhaps revised, could be submitted for review by administrative law judges in a few weeks. The best bet might be to scrap these proposals and start over - or repeal that 1997 law.

Alan Bock

Orange County Register

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