980 words; 4 minutes to read
This audio summary courtesy of volunteer Averi Brailey.
This first part of this post of a prisoner’s experience with visits was published on November 30. That post also references earlier posts in this series from a former prisoner.
The visitor centre
Once visitors arrived and cleared security, they went to the visitor centre, a separate building which was close to the security gate. There was normally one guard in that centre. When visitors arrived, the guard would call the prisoner on the PA, so any prisoner expecting a visit had to be alert for these announcements.
Prisoners were not searched coming into the visitor centre, but anything you brought with you was; you were allowed to bring food from the canteen, such as pop or chocolate but no food that you had bought through the grocery system or food you had made yourself – though I know several prisoners who did bring things like cookies they had made themselves, sometimes secretly and sometimes with the guard’s knowledge. For the most part I found that the guards who staffed the visitor centre recognized how important visits were to prisoner welfare and would often not enforce all the rules though occasionally there would be a guard who did hew to the letter.
The visiting centre itself was quite a decent space. It was a large, brightly lit room with many windows – also used on Sundays for church services. There were many wooden tables and chairs, and several vending machines to purchase food – of vending machine quality – and drinks, as well as cups, cutlery and a microwave. At one end was a play area for children with various toys and games, and a TV and DVD player. These were purchased with money from prisoners through the Inmate Committee (the subject of a future post). Just outside was a green space with picnic tables that could be used in nice weather, and beyond that a playground for children. These areas were surrounded by a very low fence, but prisoners knew they were only to be used by those having visits.
Most prisoners don’t get any visits
My impression was that a small number of prisoners accounted for most of the visits, while many prisoners never had anyone visit. On visit days you tended to hear the same names being called. Of the 12 other prisoners with whom I lived for at least for a few months, I believe that only 4 had any visitors over my year there. Although the visits policy said that visits could be limited by numbers, I never saw the visitor centre entirely full, and of course if it had been the prison could have extended the hours.
There are many reasons for the lack of visits. Some people’s families are far away and can’t visit without a lot of effort. The prison was not somewhere readily accessible except by car. In other cases, people just don’t have anyone to visit them, especially if they have been in jail a long time. One of the lifers I came to know quite well, who had been in jail nearly 20 years at that point, had regular visits from his mother, who lived quite far away. 80 years old, she had to catch a bus before 6 AM to get there to see him, which she did every month. If and when she can’t visit any more, he’ll have no one.
Some prisoners who don’t get visits may have important external contacts through phone or letters, but to my mind this still points to the important problem of loneliness and isolation faced by prisoners, which is known to be a risk factor for reoffending.
I loved getting visits; they were a huge break from the endless routine of prison, and even more, a connection to life outside. I was fortunate to have quite a few visits even though everyone who visited me had to make a long drive to get there. At the same time, the end of visits was often hard emotionally. This was especially the case at the beginning of my time.
Every visit was a reminder that I was in jail, and was there because I had done something shameful. Saying goodbye to people I loved and wouldn’t see again for some time was always hard. The first visit my wife made, about a month after I got to minimum security, left me feeling very blue. But the worst one of all was a couple of months later when two of our daughters and our (then) two grandchildren, one aged 3 and the other a baby, came. It was wonderful to see them; it was my first time meeting my grandson. But when they left, our granddaughter wanted me to come home with them and this left me feeling so sad; I went back to my room and cried. Many other prisoners confessed their own struggles around the emotions of visiting. How do you explain the whole idea of prison to a young child?
Visits especially hard for fathers
Indeed, among the saddest things I saw during my time in jail were men visiting with their young children. The children would be rather oblivious to where they were; they could happily run around the playground or play with the toys inside. But I could see the stress in the fathers who were imprisoned and in the mothers who were shepherding their children through these few hours with an otherwise-absent father. Any such visit would always have the shadow of the impending departure and separation.
With older children the problems were different – the shame and anger children would understandably feel at having a father in prison were hard for the men to deal with. Older children might also suffer at school if they were in this situation and the families would often have serious financial difficulties. Children and families are victims of incarceration too.
Indeed, several prisoners I knew told their families not to visit at all because they thought it would be too hard for everyone. As one housemate told me, “I don’t want my kids to see me in here, to associate me with being in jail”. What a terrible thing it is to feel that having your children stay away from you was better for them. And the jail provided no supports for prisoners facing these challenges.
Visits were a huge benefit to those who received them. It is also clear that the prison could do much to make visits easier by counteracting the issues mentioned here. But as documented elsewhere in these posts, the institution had no real interest in improving the situation of prisoners.