Lawyers for a group of Massachusetts prisoners and their visitors filed suit against the leader of the state Department of Correction on Wednesday, alleging the prison system’s new visitation rules are too restrictive and threaten to undermine efforts to rehabilitate inmates.
Rules adopted March 23 limit the number of visitors an inmate can receive and establish a screening process for guests that must be completed in advance of visiting, according to the lawsuit, filed by attorneys at Prisoners’ Legal Services in Boston, a nonprofit that advocates for the humane treatment of prisoners.
“It’s going to do a lot more harm than good,” said Jessica White, a lawyer with the organization.
The suit, which names Correction Commissioner Thomas A. Turco III, was brought on behalf of 10 prisoners, an inmate’s cousin, and the member of a Quaker group who spent four years regularly visiting two inmates before the regulations were put into effect.
The complaints were filed in superior courts in Middlesex and Worcester counties. A spokesman for the correction agency declined to comment Wednesday, saying the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Lawyers for the prisoners and visitors argue that research has found that prisoners who receive visitors are less likely to act out while they’re locked up and have a better chance of staying out of trouble after they are released.
They also question claims by correction officials that the new rules are needed to reduce the flow of drugs being smuggled behind bars.
“There is no evidence supporting the notion that reducing both the number of prison visitors and the overall level of visitation substantially reduces the amount of drugs in prison,” the complaint said.
The new rules require all visitors to be placed on an inmate visitation list by prisoners, who are limited in the number of individuals who can visit them.
Inmates in maximum security are permitted no more than five names on their pre-approved visitors list; inmates in medium security are allowed eight names; and inmates in minimum security are allowed 10, the complaint said. Prisoners can revise their visiting lists twice a year.
Visitors must also complete an application and submit a photo ID by mail before a visit can take place, the lawsuit said.
The new rules mark a substantial change from the previous policy, which allowed visitors to show up at a facility’s scheduled visiting time. After they completed a form, presented an ID, and submitted to a search, they were generally permitted to see an inmate.
The complaint asks a judge to rule that the new regulations violate the constitutional rights of prisoners and their visitors and stop correction officials from implementing the policies.
“DOC’s overarching justification for the changes to the visitation regulations is to promote successful rehabilitation and re-entry. However, the likely outcome of these regulations will be to reduce visitation, which ample evidence shows directly undermines that goal,” the lawyers wrote.
The prison system has already seen a “significant decrease” in visits since the policies were enacted, according to the lawsuit. The relatives of some prisoners missed a May 1 deadline for submitting their applications, while others have experienced delays with having their applications processed, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs include four prisoners serving life sentences without the chance of parole.Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.