We already lock up those convicted of crimes. Why punish their innocent families, too?
Why does the Massachusetts Department of Correction make it so difficult, so unpleasant, for those who visit loved ones in prison?
For friends and family, those visits can be misery. An honest mistake, or the whim of a corrections officer, can cut short a visit or not allow it at all. Women, including those who clear considerable hurdles to get to distant facilities, can be sent home for wearing leggings or a blouse too tight or too loose. A hand on a shoulder, or a rambunctious child, might get the family ejected. Insufficient deference to guards, even the rude or unreasonable ones, can mean ejection and suspended visiting rights. A staff shortage might mean arriving at a prison only to learn all visits are canceled for the day.
“When I go there, I feel like I am also serving a sentence,” said a woman whose husband is in prison for second-degree murder. She asked her name not be used for fear her husband will be targeted inside. “I have to mentally get myself together to be treated who knows what kind of way.”
It has gotten worse since the Department of Correction introduced new visiting rules in March 2018. Before, anyone could visit an inmate, as long as they passed an onsite background check. Now, only 8 or 10 designated family members and others are allowed to visit, after submitting to a pre-approval process so onerous it dissuades some from even trying. Approved designees may visit only one inmate in the system unless they receive special permission.
The new rules were meant to combat contraband in prisons, according to a Department of Correction spokesman, but did not provide data showing whether drug-smuggling is down. (There have been several cases of guards smuggling in drugs since then.)
Here’s what is down: visits across the system, by a quarter, in the first year, with one prison seeing a drop of 36 percent.
“They try to make it as awful as possible so that people don’t want to visit,” said Elizabeth Matos, head of Prisoners’ Legal Services, which has sued to overturn the new rules.
Restricting visits isn’t just inhumane, however: It compromises public safety. Studies show that inmates who maintain contact with family and friends behave better in prison, and are less likely to reoffend on the outside.
And for those who can’t clear the high hurdles to see their loved ones in person, phone calls are hardly an alternative: The cost of inmates’ calls — charged to their families, who are overwhelmingly poor — is a massive burden, totaling some $24 million a year. The DOC charges 10 cents a minute, much higher than folks on the outside would pay for a phone call, but a spokesman points out other states charge even more. The rates at county jails are unconscionable, with a 15-minute call at one costing as much as $7.50.
Gouging inmates’ families on phone calls has been a scam for years, as prison and jail officials around the country have an incentive to let the telecom companies charge as much as possible because they get hefty commissions on the calls. The practice has been attacked in other states, and in Massachusetts Prisoners Legal Services has sued Bristol County over its phone contract.
The woman whose husband is serving time for second-degree murder gets how people might feel he doesn’t deserve to see his family, especially because the man he killed won’t see his again. She, too, lost members of her family to murder.
“I am a black woman from Boston,” she said. “I have seen both sides.”
But their son should not be held responsible for his father’s mistake, she said. The state shouldn’t make it more difficult for him to read to his child or help with his homework, to maintain the kind of connection that will make them both more likely to succeed in the years ahead.
“It is a never-ending cycle of hurt for us,” she said, her watchful 8-year-old son sitting quietly beside her. “These harsh policies cause trauma to another black child, who will grow up to be a black man. Where does it stop?”