Open your home and heart to a prisoner’s family

Why should we care?

Because prisoners do better if they stay connected to their families. “The effect of family visits on prisoner well-being and future behavior is an important consideration in the development of prison policy,” says a review published two years ago, looking at research done since 1991 on the effects of prison visits. Researchers Karen De Claire and Louise Dixon found positive effects of prisoners receiving visits: Prison visits reduced depressive symptoms in women and adolescents, there was evidence of reduction in rule-breaking, and visits reduced recidivism and increased survival in the community.

A study done by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that the more individual visitors a prisoner had, the greater the reduction in the risk of reconviction, with each additional visitor reducing the risk of reconviction by 3 percent.

Social ties help offset the stigma of prison and help inmates with the practical challenges of integrating back into society.

“Indeed, with few exceptions, visitation provides the only opportunity for inmates to have direct contact with family, friends, and community members,” writes Joshua C. Cochran from the Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“In doing so, it affords inmates some ability to preserve, develop, or sustain ties to social networks outside of prison, and to have sources of social capital on which to draw during and after incarceration.”

When New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo in January proposed cutting the number of days state maximum security prisons would allow visitors, the proposal was greeted with an outcry from petitioners and lawmakers alike — leading to the budget restoration of 39 positions, at a cost of $2.6 million, to continue to allow visits daily.

Cuomo had argued that most prison visits take place on weekends so three days would be sufficient.  Petitioners cited the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights: “I have the right to speak with, see and touch my parent.”

The petitioners pointed out, “Under the current seven-day system, already visitors often wait two to three hours to see their loved ones — typically after traveling for hours. With reduced days, the wait will be longer, the visitor rooms more crowded, and the visiting days and hours even more limited. This will be terrible for everyone and impossible for many visitors.”

While the benefits for the families of prisoners is obvious, more opportunity for prison visits also benefits society as a whole. Visits are an incentive for inmates to behave so it keeps prisons safer, which is good for correction officers, too.

Outside the prison walls, citizens are less safe if inmates, once released, have no social connections, and no support from families. They frequently return to crime. Remember, the Minnesota study parsed out the recidivism rate with data: Each individual visitor reduces the risk of recidivism by 3 percent. With that in mind, we ought to encourage as many visits as possible.

So what can we do to help? Martha Swan, who lives in the Adirondacks, told our reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair of her experience seeing a family who had traveled from New York City hours and hours north to Dannemora, only to be turned away from the prison there, not having known that visitors had to arrive 30 minutes before visiting hours were over at 3 p.m.

Swan decided to do something about it. She and Soffiyah Elijah, who lives in Manhattan, founded Friends in the Adirondacks in which volunteers open their homes to the families of prisoners who must travel to see them.

“The point,” said Swan, “isn’t just to offer hospitality to the families. It’s also to open hearts and minds here in the Adirondacks, helping them move beyond the stereotypes that render inmates and their families invisible.”

People make mistakes and are punished for them. Their families shouldn’t be treated as pariahs.

One of the mothers who has used Swan and Elijah’s network has termed it an Underground Railroad. That phrase — for the network of safe houses used to help slaves escape to free states before the Civil War — is not so far flung as a description of the current network to house prisoners’ families during visits. The majority of inmates in North Country prisons are black and most of the residents in Adirondack towns are white.

According to the United States Department of Justice, African-American males make up 35 percent of jail inmates and 37 percent of prison inmates although African Americans make up only 12 to 13 percent of the population of the United States. African Americans have nearly six times the incarceration rate of whites, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“One of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime,” said the Sentencing Project report on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System submitted to the United Nations in 2013.

But behind the numbers, it’s the people they stand for that matter. Jay Coleman, a black American who was imprisoned for 25 years after he stole $18, told Floyd Mair that getting visits was always very important to him during his prison stay: it broke up the monotony, it brought news about family, and it made him feel like he hadn’t been forgotten.

“Nothing takes the place of human contact,” he said, noting that most contact inside the prison was negative. We commend Coleman for his current work, helping inmates to survive in prison.

We can help our nation not to become further divided. According to Swan, Albany County, where we live, is right on the network. Since many of the prisoners’ families live in New York City, they travel up the Hudson Valley to get to prisons in the North Country to visit the people they love.

“We need a network of friendship and hospitality up and down the Hudson,” said Swan.

We salute Swan and Elijah and hope others will help them. Anyone interested in becoming part of the Friends in the Adirondacks network may email info@johnbrownlives.org.

No one should be forgotten; no one should be invisible.

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