The California Department of Corrections is considering a new set of
regulations that would tighten up the rules for visiting prisoners. The
ostensible reasons are to clarify the rules and to reduce the smuggling
of drugs into prisons. But the early drafts of the proposals seem unnecessarily
harsh and calculated to break down family relationships. Given that most
prisoners will eventually return to society, the proposals should be modified,
or rejected entirely.
The department has several proposals under consideration. One would
forbid "contact" visits - including hugging, kissing or embracing, even
among family members - for any prisoner convicted of possession for sale
or manufacture of drugs for the first year. After a year a prisoner would
be allowed to touch family members, but only for a period not to exceed
five seconds at the beginning and the end of the visit. This would be especially
tough on female prisoners, 42 percent of whom are in on drug-related crimes
and 80 percent of whom are mothers, according to psychiatrist and author
Another rule would prohibit male prisoners, regardless of their crime,
from holding anybody over the age of 6 on their laps. Any visiting child
over the age of seven would have to get a state-issued picture ID card.
Finally, prisoners confined 23 hours a day in security housing units, or
SHUs, for violating prison rules, would only be allowed to have blood relatives
as visitors. No friends, no domestic partners, no foster parents, just
blood relatives. Some prisoners have none.
The department held a hearing in Sacramento March 8 at which more than
100 prisoner family members showed up and 60 spoke. Virtually all complained
that the proposed regulations were unreasonable, designed more to dehumanize
prisoners and breed resentment. We agree. Most California prisoners will
eventually get out of prison. There's no guarantee, of course, but it just
makes sense that those that have maintained relationships with families
and loved ones will have a better chance of avoiding future crimes. Making
contact with families and friends more difficult is more likely to breed
isolation and contribute to recidivism.
It also could contribute to discipline problems within prisons. In addition,
as Cayenne Bird, director of the prison reform group UNION (www/ geocities.com/capitolhill/parliament/2398.htm)
has pointed out, Christians are admonished to visit prisoners and the sick,
even those who are not family members.
These new regulations could make the work of prison ministries and individual
believers more difficult. Prison officials say the new proposals are a
response to a 1997 law, SB 2601, that among other things declared prison
visits a privilege, not a right. According to Department of Corrections
spokesman Russ Heimerich, the comments received at the hearing and by mail
are now being reviewed.
The regulations, perhaps revised, could be submitted for review by administrative
law judges in a few weeks. The best bet might be to scrap these proposals
and start over - or repeal that 1997 law.