The number of visits to inmates in Massachusetts correctional facilities fell 23 percent in 2018, the first year under new rules restricting how many individuals may visit any one prisoner, according to Department of Correction statistics.
Advocates for prisoners say the decline is a worrying sign for inmates, their families, and the communities to which most prisoners will eventually return.
“Many studies have been done, including by the DOC, that correlate prison visits with reduced recidivism,” said Elizabeth Matos, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, a nonprofit advocacy group for inmates.
Prisoners who receive more visits have fewer incidents of misconduct while incarcerated and a better chance of readjusting once they get out, said Matos, whose group is representing prisoners and visitors who are challenging the new rules in court.
“As people get close to being released, they need to set their lives back up” with a job, housing, and transportation, she said. “It’s very hard to set all that up without help on the outside.”
With the new rules, a DOC spokesman said, higher-security facilities saw a significant decrease in the number of visitors caught trying to smuggle contraband, which was the goal. The department did not provide specifics to substantiate its statement.
The new rules, which went into effect in March 2018, require visitors to be preapproved and limit the number of visitors, corresponding to the facility’s security level.
Before the change, visitors could show up during visiting hours, fill out a form, show an ID, and submit to a search, and they generally were permitted to see an inmate.
The updated regulations set limits for the number of names allowed on a preapproved visitor list: five for inmates in maximum security, eight for those in medium security, and 10 for those in minimum security. The lists could be updated twice a year.
As the new rules were about to take effect, the DOC pushed back against the criticism, arguing the caps would not be a hardship for the average prisoner. At the maximum security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, for instance, the typical prisoner was visited by just 2.3 people, a DOC spokesman said at the time.
But in April 2018, the first full month under the new rules, visitation across 14 correctional facilities plummeted 42 percent, to 6,601, from 11,363 the prior April.
(The totals exclude visits to Bridgewater State Hospital, for which complete numbers were not available from the DOC, and the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center, which changed locations in 2017. The numbers also exclude visits from lawyers, law students, clergy, and minor children. )
For May to December 2018, the number of visits across the system averaged 8,185 a month, a drop of 24 percent from the same period in 2017.
Full-year visits fell 36 percent at Souza-Baranowski, 26 percent at MCI-Shirley, and 27 percent at the women’s prison, MCI-Framingham.
In early January, The Boston Globe filed a public-records request for monthly visitation numbers in 2017 and 2018. When the DOC did not respond within the time allowed by state law, the Globe appealed to Massachusetts’ supervisor of records.
On March 1, the supervisor ordered the DOC to respond; it ultimately provided the data in June.
Matos said she was not surprised by the decline in visitors.
“That is what we have been hearing from our clients and what we have seen ourselves in the visiting rooms,” she said.
Early this year, the DOC tweaked the policy in response to discussions with the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. As of March 1, inmates were permitted to update their visitor lists three times a year, and the number of approved visitors for inmates in maximum security increased to eight, according to a memo from the DOC commissioner, Carol A. Mici.
The DOC “recognizes the importance of visits from family and friends,” a spokesman said in a statement. “After collaborating with various stakeholders, we’ve been able to update our policies further in a way that supports successful re-entry and our commitment to the safety of inmates, staff, and the public.”
State Representative Marjorie C. Decker has filed a bill that would essentially undo the new visiting policy, forbidding caps on the number of individuals permitted to see a prisoner, among other things. The bill is in committee. “We have to decide, ‘What is the purpose of the DOC?’ ” said Decker, a Cambridge Democrat. If prisons are to rehabilitate as well as punish, they should not “dehumanize” inmates with harsh visitation policies, she said.
The lawsuit filed by Matos’s nonprofit says the caps aren’t fair to some inmates. “The regulations, by capping the number of unique visitors prisoners may have, disproportionately harm prisoners who have managed to develop and maintain substantial community ties,” the lawsuit states.
Bob Wojcik of Holyoke, an opponent of visitor caps who served 16 years in prison, said he would have had a difficult time living under the caps; he has a large family and numerous friends who wanted to see him when he was incarcerated.
“I knew this would happen,” Wojcik said of the reduced visits, in part because the new policy discourages spontaneous trips by people not on an approved list. “There are people out there, friends, who get up in the morning and say, ‘This is the day I’m going to visit Bob. I haven’t seen him in nine months because I’m busy; I have kids. But today I want to go.’ ” Wojcik, 47, went to prison in 1993 for his role in an attempted auto insurance fraud that caused a fatality. The Parole Board cited his strong community support in its decision to release him in 2009.
“The number one thing that helps people have a good reentry [after prison] is community support,” he said.