New rules crimp prison visits CROWDS:
Sunday, May 30, 2004
It was 5 a.m. on a recent Sunday in Norco, and the sky was just beginning to take on the light gray and pink of the early-morning hours.
Joy Martin, 21, of San Diego, leaned against her silver BMW, her 3-week-old daughter, Randi, fast asleep in her car seat.
Martin's friend Laura Guzman, 22, of Ontario, stood nearby. She smiled
as Randi opened her eyes, only to fall back to sleep.
Valerie Berta / The Press-Enterprise
Taletha Hadnot, of San Bernardino, waits by her car outside the prison in Norco to see her incarcerated husband.
Martin and Guzman were outside of the California Rehabilitation Center. They had been waiting for more than two hours to see their husbands. The BMW was joined by at least 100 other vehicles filled with sleepy people trying to pass the time until visiting hours start at 9 a.m.
It's a way of life for many who visit the more than 162,000 inmates in California's 32 prisons. They get up early or arrive the night before to wait in long lines of cars until the institutions open.
Those lines have gotten longer, prison advocates and family members say. In January, the California Department of Corrections cut visiting days to two a week.
Some prisons, such as Ironwood and Chuckwalla Valley state prisons in Blythe, weren't affected because they already had visiting hours on only two days a week, Saturday and Sunday. Others, including the California Institution for Men and the California Institution for Women in Chino, took a hit, going from four days a week of visiting to two. The California Rehabilitation Center in Norco went from three days to two.
Officials with the Corrections Department said the measure could save $5.6 million this fiscal year and $11.1 million in the next fiscal year. Fewer visiting days mean correctional officers who keep watch during visiting hours can be reassigned to different areas of the prison, said spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
Thornton said she doesn't expect visiting days to exceed two per week anytime soon. The state's budget crisis makes it difficult to foresee any additional funds being made available.
Until then, the same number of visitors who were accommodated on three or four visiting days, depending on the prison, now is packing the prisons' visitor areas on two days.
Some prisons, including the California Rehabilitation Center, are trying to combat crowding by assigning visiting days according to the last two digits of an inmate's corrections number.
"I used to come here twice a month," said Martin, tucking a blanket around her daughter's car seat. "Now it's once a month. How is that fair?"
No easy visits
Guzman said it seems as though visiting prisons will never get easier. Even when visits were allowed three days a week at the Norco prison, the visiting room was crowded and she still had to arrive at 3 a.m. to make sure that she got in by the time visiting started at 9 a.m.
At the California Institution for Women, the wait in line to get in has increased by at least three hours since the visiting hours were cut in half, said David Warren, a retired lawyer from Citrus Heights and a member of the statewide Inmate Family Council. Warren visits the women's prison once a month. It's push and shove to get the visiting passes, he said, but at least the members of the correctional staff are willing to help with visitors' concerns and children.
"They are a lot more responsive than the other prisons," said Warren, who also visits the California Institution for Men and Ironwood and Chuckwalla Valley state prisons.
Guzman said she has to be careful at the California Rehabilitation Center, where several times the correctional staff has told her she will not be allowed inside unless she changes her clothes. The dress standards seem arbitrary to Martin, who notes that an outfit considered permissible on one visit will not be on her next visit.
On her last visit, she was told that her pants were too tight. She admits that they were, but she'd just had her baby, and none of her clothes fit.
"I had to go down to Target and buy these pants so I could go in," she said, pulling on her black sweats. "By then, I'd lost time to see my husband."
Guzman said her own 2-year-old daughter even knows the drill. As soon as she reaches the gate, the child holds out her arms so that the correctional officers can pat her down. It's sad, but Guzman said she understands that the guards are just looking for the drugs and weapons that some parents hide in their children's clothes.
Thornton, the corrections spokeswoman, said it's not just the visitors who are sometimes treated poorly. Recently at a prison in Northern California, a visitor upset because she wasn't allowed in tried to run over an officer with her car. Other officers have been spat at, she said.
"It's been more stressful for everyone involved," Thornton said by phone.
Martin and Guzman agreed that the past few months have been stressful, but that's no reason for correctional officers to treat them as "the wives of scum."
By about 6:30 a.m., the sun was overhead, and sleepy visitors were starting to roll down car windows and chat. Randi Martin woke up. She was quiet as her mother organized the BMW, "just in case any of the guards think there's someone trying to escape in my car."
Behind her, Taletha Hadnot of San Bernardino climbs out of her raised red Chevrolet Blazer to talk to Guzman and Martin. She rubs her eyes, and they start to talk about whether Hadnot's burgundy pants are going to be too tight to get her in to see her husband.
"I'll be glad when this is all over," said Hadnot, 34. "I love him, but this visiting thing is a hassle."
Reach Stefanie Frith at (909) 893-2114 or firstname.lastname@example.org