Among the factors that most influence recidivism rates among prisoners is their ability to maintain strong family ties. A review of studies found that in-person visits result in a 26 percent reduction in recidivism. The impact is higher for men: They experience a 53 percent decline. Family visits are also correlated to a higher likelihood of finding a job post-
Yet the Mass. Department of Correction is going in the opposite direction. The agency has a new policy limiting the number of visitors inmates can have, putting an undue strain on inmates’ family relationships.
The change, which will be fully rolled out by next Friday, has alarmed prison reform advocates. It’s a prison management decision that places prisoners last, and a shortsighted policy that could have severe consequences on the state’s recidivism rate.
The department argues that the prisons have a drug smuggling problem that needs to be dealt with. Fewer visitors equals fewer drugs, the thinking goes. All prison visitors now will have to be preapproved, and the number of people allowed to visit each inmate will be limited based on the prison security level. Inmates can have five, eight, or 10 names on their preapproved list. They can switch names on their visiting lists only twice a year, and minors do not count toward the limit.
“For the lucky prisoners who get visitors, this creates tremendous sadness and anxiety from having to choose between siblings, family members, former employers, prospective employers, religious people, etc.,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. This policy only feeds into the notion that “you no longer get [just] prison as punishment, but the punishment [also] continues while in prison.”
In response to mounting criticism about the move, DOC noted that the average prisoner won’t be affected by the new limits. Each prisoner gets visited by 2.3 people on average, DOC said. But that’s not an honest metric to use, since a significant number of inmates don’t get any visitors at all, prison reform advocates say. DOC does not have a centralized system to track who gets visitors and who doesn’t, a spokesperson said, but each of the 17 institutions does.
To be fair, DOC allows exceptions to the policy if, say, the inmate has a family reunion. They can ask the superintendent in a written request. The agency also noted it made 167 visitor drug seizures in the last four years.
But there must be a more effective and humane way to stem the drug supply in prisons other than by limiting contact. For instance, how about increasing access to medication-assisted treatment for inmates suffering from substance use disorder? If the goal of the prison system is rehabilitation and a decline in recidivism, then the DOC’s new policy is way off target. The goal instead seems to be to heap a new level of punishment on prisoners, with the additional sins of a relative few hurting the rest of the population.