The actions of my aunt were something that showed me that prison was just a fence around me. —John Espinosa Nelson
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.
"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."
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.
"If a person has something to fear about having their fingerprints scanned, then they probably have something to hide," Corbett said. "This is not a background check. It is a stand-alone scan that goes nowhere beyond our system. There may be some fears, but I think those are unfounded."
The policy exists only in Alabama, and Corbett is not aware of other states looking to implement a similar policy right now. Many states do have fees associated with visitation, and the entire process can often be mechanical and uncomfortable, said Nelson, who compared the visiting room process to Jiffy Lube, where the mentality is "here's another car" to be processed.
"Visiting any prison is intimidating," he said. "A lot of visitors end up feeling like they are not welcome. Visiting room guards are not going to be real friendly because often times they are on their third or fourth shift of the day."
In addition to a potentially unwelcoming atmosphere, Clark again cited inordinate and unnecessary expenses as a major barrier.
"They could charge $15 for a 15-minute call from prison," she said. "Many states also do not encourage visitation because they say, 'It's a lot of work for our staff.' "
The Florida study of 2008 offers several suggestions on how to improve visitation conditions. Among them:
• Place inmates in facilities as close to their home communities as possible
• Encourage community service agencies and organizations to visit inmates
• Expand visiting hours to evenings and weekends to accommodate visitors
• Make sure visitation rooms are clean, comfortable and hospitable
The importance of community involvement for inmates both in prison and upon release cannot be overstated, Duwe said.
"We need greater outreach to those in community," he said. "Crime is not a law enforcement problem, it's not a court problem, it's not a corrections problem, it is a societal problem. Usually we see that efforts to control crime are much more successful when we see community involvement."
Nelson illustrates the powerful impact of visitation and the importance of maintaining and fostering relationships.
"I was literally saved by all the people who gave their time to me," Nelson said. "The small things all added up to be something tremendous."