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Visitation critical for inmates during, after incarceration

Published: Saturday, Oct. 20 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Inmates who are visited frequently through programs such as Children's Justice Alliance often change their thinking and ultimately their behavior. Inmates who were visited were 13 less likely to get reconvicted for a felony, according to a Minnesota Department of Corrections study.

Source - Children's Justice Alliance

The bold red balloons struggled vainly for his attention. They danced from strings tied to the mailbox, the car, even the top of a hedge, but still John Espinosa Nelson could not see them from the prison window.

Nelson's aunt lived close to the California prison where he was struggling to find hope, and she wanted him to see the dozen red balloons she'd put out for him. On the phone, he could hear her yelling to her kids to reposition the balloons.

Nelson went to prison at age 23 and felt alone. He had spoken to his mom only five times in four years, and he felt she and her side of the family wanted nothing to do with him.

He came from a middle-class family and was by no means a hardened criminal. A "series of bad choices" involving nonviolent robberies had led to him to prison. It was hard for him to remain optimistic about changing his life and circumstances, especially given his surroundings.

"All around me were nothing but (reoffenders) and excuses," he said. "I had no reason to believe I wasn't going to reoffend."

Then his aunt gave him a dozen reasons. He never did see those red balloons, but he didn't need to.

"Metaphorically it was enormous," he said. "The actions of my aunt were something that showed me that prison was just a fence around me. They gave me reason to have hope. In some ways, those red balloons changed the whole game."

Nelson, now 46, is years removed from prison, but he has not forgotten how outside support, from people like his aunt, helped him take responsibility for his actions and changed his life both in prison and upon release.

Inmates visited in prison do a better job of staying out of prison once they are released, according to a 2011 Minnesota Department of Corrections study. The study examined the effects of prison visitation on reconviction rates among 16,420 inmates released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2007. It found that inmates who were visited were 13 percent less likely to be convicted of a felony in the future and 25 percent less likely to return to prison for a technical violation.

Based on both statistic and anecdotal evidence, visitation can be the difference between continuing a cycle of reoffending or finding hope to start a new life, according to experts and research. Some suggest policy changes to enhance the visitation process around the nation for both inmate and visitor. For the same reason, Alabama's recently introduced policy to fingerprint all visitors is drawing critics who worry it could reduce the number of visits.

Importance of visitation

The Minnesota study built upon findings from a study of Florida inmates in 2008 and a Canadian study on reoffenders in 2009, said Grant Duwe, research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the study's primary author. The Minnesota study had an average follow-up period of five years for the 16,420 inmates, the longest follow-up period of any visitation study to date.

The study was observational but was academic peer-reviewed and published in the Criminal Justice Policy Review. It looked at the timing and number of visits, as well as the type of visitor. Of all the inmates studied, 40 percent were not visited once, indicative of a need for policy change, Duwe said.

"We need to improve visitation policies because we know that social support is critical in helping offenders make that transition successfully from prison to the community," he said. "The larger social support network that an offender has, the greater the public safety benefit."

The Minnesota study also found that in-laws, clergy, siblings and fathers had the most beneficial impact on reducing reoffending, while visits from ex-spouses actually increased the risk, Duwe said.

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