Visitation critical for inmates during, after incarceration

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

"When dad was visiting, mom was visiting, too," he said. "We know that for individuals who grow up in a two-parent household that is a buffer against crime and probably a buffer for recidivism too."

States such as Minnesota, Colorado, Virginia and Oregon have already implemented or are looking at implementing video visitation, which allow inmates to have video chats similar to Skype, Duwe said, innovations needed to reduce the barriers to visitation such as transportation costs.

Although visitation can certainly provide hope to an inmate while he or she is incarcerated, a major facet of visitation is giving the inmate a "lifeline" upon release, said Mindy Clark, director of national outreach and marketing for the Children's Justice Alliance in Oregon.

"People who aren't abandoned have a much better chance of succeeding when they get out," Clark said. "Whether it is clergy or a member of the family, people need to have an anchor in the community."

This was especially important for Nelson once he was released, because he had a friend to turn to for a job opportunity that helped rebuild his life.

"Even if it's just a phone number or a kind word, those things are enormous," he said. "It's important that someone is returning home to some kind of support system. My biggest fear was going back."

He has set up a blog where he advocates responsibility for one's actions. His memoir, "Where Excuses Go to Die," will be released in January. The book will chronicle his prison experiences, the importance of visitation and the need for personal accountability.

The Children's Justice Alliance works with incarcerated parents and youths to provide the kind of anchor Nelson found. Clark and others work to strengthen or re-establish the connections vital to reduction of recidivism rates. Oregon has the lowest recidivism rate in the nation, Clark said, and it can partly be attributed to programs like the Children's Justice Alliance.

"Inmates themselves recognize they need outside support in order to succeed," she said. "Life is nicer and happier when you are in a functioning family. Our mission is to reduce the probability that children will follow their parents' footsteps into prison."

A visitor doesn't need to deliver a grandiose speech or expect to drastically alter the life of an inmate during a visit. Just the act of visiting itself speaks volumes for many inmates, Clark said.

"Even if it is only to update baseball scores, it still lets people know, 'OK, I'm not a throw-away human-being,' " Clark said. "Having a one-on-one relationship reinforces changes in thinking that leads to changes in behavior."

Visitation particulars

Even if someone is inclined to visit an inmate in prison, there can be barriers that hamper the process, Clark said. Factors such as travel costs and prison location play into the process and may prevent some inmates from receiving visitors often or at all.

"So many prisons are located out in the middle of nowhere," she said. "So by the time a family member drives out there it can cost $200 for a single visit. A lot of families can't afford that."

Alabama's new policy requiring prison visitors to have their fingerprints scanned before entering a facility is part of an effort to update networking system software that communicates statewide. Although some may feel the policy could negatively affect visitation, it is intended to enhance safety and security, said Brian Corbett, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections.

"In the long run, we anticipate it will speed up processing when visitors come," Corbett, said. "On any given Sunday it is not unlikely we will have 1,000 people coming in for visitation."

Clark called the policy "just another artificial barrier" to visitation, but Corbett said most visitors have nothing to be concerned about.

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