970 words; 4 minutes to read
This audio summary courtesy of volunteer Averi Brailey.
This is the ninth in an ongoing series of posts sent to us by a former prisoner who wishes to remain anonymous. Previous posts in this series are here (#1) here (#2) here (#3) here (#4) here (#5) here (#6) here (#7) and here (#8). Part 2 of this item on visits will be posted soon.
This post refers to visiting practices prior to Covid, which led to the elimination or substantial restriction of visits for long periods of time.
Visits are one of the critical ways in which prisoners maintain their ties with family and community. Visits were critical whether prisoners had short sentences or long ones. But as with everything in prisons, too much of the focus in regard to visits was on security and not enough on achieving long-term purpose of rehabilitation and supporting prisoner welfare. And as usual, the institution was apathetic and did little or nothing to support family connections.
Anyone wanting to visit a prisoner has to apply in writing, with photos, and be approved by CSC. Usually a visit application was approved in a few weeks, but approval could sometimes take a lot longer, and nobody seemed to care very much. For example, one of my brothers applied to visit while I was still in the Assessment Unit. A few months later, when he scheduled a visit, I was called in the day before and told he could not come because the paperwork for his visit had never been finalized; the Assessment Unit staff had not done so and when the file came over to the prison with me, nobody checked to see if it was complete until he actually wanted to come. I was told that his application would be put on rush, but it took 3 more weeks before he got his approval. (In prison, waiting 3 weeks for a ‘rush job’ is not surprising.)
On another occasion, I had friends coming to visit when I was called to the Visits and Correspondence (V&C) office, located at the visiting area, and told they could not come because they weren’t on the approved list. But, I pointed out, they’d already had a visit with me a couple of months earlier. “It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve been here”, the staff member told me. “If they’re not on the approved list, they can’t come in.” This leap of logic left me no response – though we actually sorted out the problem when I realized that the person was on the list but under a different name.
Visits are limited
Visits to the prison where I was held were allowed on Friday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday from 8 AM to 3 PM. (There were also private family visits – ‘trailer visits’ – a subject for another post.) If a visitor could not come at those times, then they couldn’t visit at all. A visit required a request at least a couple of days in advance by the prisoner or the visitors, specifying who was coming and on which days. I soon realized that it was far easier for me to schedule these visits than for those coming. Someone outside had to phone to do so, and the phone was often either busy or not answered at all, nor could you leave a message. I, on the other hand, only had to walk up to V&C most days between 12 noon and 12:30, and write the visitors into the schedule that was posted there.
For visitors, coming to a prison can be an intimidating experience. Approved visitors received a package of information from CSC with a heavy emphasis on not smuggling in drugs, as well as having to view a video about the search processes. Visitors were not allowed to bring any personal possessions into the jail, including phones or car keys, with the exception of coins for the vending machines or relevant supplies if you were bringing a baby, such as diapers. Depending on the day, visitors might be stopped on the highway and have a dog sniff your car, or have swabs taken and read by an ionizer, or were subjected to other kinds of searches. Sometimes the process, even at a minimum security prison, was quite intensive while at other times it was practically non-existent. Like all rules in the prison, those around visiting were enforced only sometimes – though one never knew when.
Problems with ion scanners
The ion scanning system has been criticized a great deal because it seems to yield many false positives – that is, it shows banned substances that the persons don’t actually have.
If the ion scanner set off an alert, it would be up to jail staff to determine how to respond. Often, but not always, they would still allow the visit but make you sit near where the guard was posted – not that the guards necessarily paid any attention. Sometimes they would turn people back. Friends visiting me set off the scanner once for reasons they could not explain, though apparently drug traces can come from many sources, including handling money, and may stay on the hands for quite a while even with washing. Many visitors take extreme measures to avoid this situation, including antibacterial swabbing of hands and glasses or changing shoes and clothes before entering.
In this case, my friend was allowed to visit but was told that her next two visits would also be monitored. After they returned home she called V&C about appealing this ruling and was told that she could certainly appeal but to the knowledge of the person with whom she was speaking, an appeal had never been granted in his many years working there. In the event, when they came back again nobody seemed to remember or care about what had happened on the previous visit.
Next post – what visits are like and the emotions they generate.