In the fall of 2015, the Jails Action Coalition launched the Visit Campaign in order to learn about the experience of families and friends visiting loved ones at Rikers Island Correctional Facility, bring awareness to those challenges, learn about the changes that families and friends want to be made, and to recommend changes in policies to make the process humane and encourage visits. The right to visits from family and friend is an important right that impacts on the incarcerated individuals and the safety at jails. According to Clark and Dwue (2011) visits play a vital role in the successful reentry of incarcerated individuals because families and friends becoming key factors in preventing recidivism by serving as resources. Through their relationships with families and friends incarcerated individuals are able to access housing, jobs, and other financial assistance. Visits also help to keep jails safe, according to Tewksbury and DeMichele (2005) visits allow incarcerated individuals to stay connected to the outside world which reduces the tension from being confined in an overcrowded environment. The New York City Board of Correction (“Board”) recognizes this right and included the importance of visiting in its regulations which govern the operation of the City jails:
Maintaining personal connections with social and family networks and support systems is critical to improving outcomes both during confinement and upon reentry. Visitation with friends and family plays an instrumental role in an inmate’s ability to maintain these connections and should therefore be encouraged and facilitated by the Department.
Board Minimum Standard § 1-09 (a).
But the board has failed to protect this right. In New York City, families and friends must face multiple hardships in order to visit their loved ones which includes very long travels, long wait times, and unclear policies around visiting that allows the Department of Correction staff to abuse visitors.
On March 26, 2015, the Department of Corrections submitted a petition to the Board of Corrections for Rulemaking that would limit physical contact during contact visits and expand on the criteria that would justify the restriction of visiting rights. On December 15, 2015, the JAC responded urging the board not to accept the proposed changes:
“The proposed amendments to § 1-09(f) fundamentally redefine contact visits to impose an across-the-board restriction on all incarcerated individuals and their visitors. This limitation will not only be a hardship to incarcerated individuals and visitors, but it will likely result in increased hostility between incarcerated individuals, visitors, and DOC staff as staff attempt to police all manner of contact. The amendments also introduce questions about who is considered a “young child,” what constitutes a “brief embrace,” and how family is defined and by whom. The changes allow more discretion for visiting room staff, which may be abused and result in an even more unpleasant visiting environment than currently exists.”
Despite JAC’s efforts on July 14, 2015, the BOC accepted the DOC petition for Rule-Making with a few revisions:
Physical contact shall be permitted between every [prisoner] inmate and all of [his or her] the inmate’s visitors [throughout the visiting period, including holding hands, holding young children, and kissing]. Permitted physical contact shall include a brief embrace and kiss between the inmate and visitor at both the beginning and end of the visitation period. Inmates shall be permitted to hold children in the inmate’s family who are ages fourteen (14) and younger throughout the visitation period, provided that the Department may limit an inmate’s holding of children to one child at a time. Additionally, inmates shall be permitted to hold hands with their visitors throughout the visitation period, which the Department may limit to holding hands over a partition that is no greater than six (6) inches. The provisions of this subdivision are inapplicable to [prisoners] inmates housed for medical reasons in the contagious disease units. The Department may impose certain limitations on contact visits for inmates confined in enhanced supervision housing in accordance with the procedures and guidelines set forth in section 1-16 of this chapter.
The Visit Campaign
Visitation is an important right that has positive impact on the incarcerated individual during incarceration and upon release and can play a vital role in improving jail safety. At Rikers Island Correctional Facility, incarcerated individuals are denied a critical part of their humanity, their relationships to important people in the lives, when visits are restricted. The purpose of the visiting campaign is to collect information about the experience of the family and friends of incarcerated individuals visiting Rikers Island in order to create an advocacy tool that will illustrate the problems with visiting in its current form and assist in drafting a petition for BOC about policy changes. This report will illustrate the failures of the Department of Corrections to adhere to the stipulations of the BOC that allows physical contacts through visits and the failures of the BOC to protect visitation rights which they have acknowledged as being very important.
Clark V., Dwue, G. (2011) Blessed Be the Social Tie That Binds: The Effects of Prison Visitation on Offender Recidivism. Criminal Justice Policy Review 24(3) 271–296 © SAGE Publications. http://cjp.sagepub.com.proxy.wexler.hunter.cuny.edu/content/24/3/271.full.pdf+html
Tewksbury, R., DeMichelle, M. (2005) Going to Prison: A Prison Visitation Program. The Prison Journal. Vol.85(3) 292-310 http://journals.sagepub.com.proxy.wexler.hunter.cuny.edu/doi/abs/10.1177/0032885505279525