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Injunction Saves CA Family Visits

In a victory in the long simmering war over family visits Michael Satris, an attorney with the San Quentin based Prison Law Office, won an injunction from Marin County Superior Court Judge Peter Smith Wednesday May 24 1995, barring the California Department of Corrections from implementing administrative regulations designed to prohibit several classes of prisoners from participating in the family visiting program. The effort to end family visiting in California prisons, long part of the politics of revenge practiced by Governor Pete Wilson the prison guards' union and their puppet victims' rights groups is unlikely to halt with this court action.

"Once again a liberal judge has ignored the feelings and wishes of the victims and their families siding with rapists, child molesters and murderers," Wilson proclaimed a day after learning of Judge Smith's decision in Pro-Family Advocates et al v. James Gomez (Marin County Superior Court No. 162051). The governor. continuing to exploit the public's fear of crime and hatred of criminals in his doomed attempt to win the Republican nomination for president, predictably blamed former Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown a Democrat who appointed Smith in 1965 for the ruling. Conveniently Wilson failed to mention that the family visiting program in California's prisons was started by then - Governor Ronald Reagan who was never accused of being liberal or soft on crime.

Former Assemblymember Dean Andal, now on the Board of Control, rushed to insert language in the 1994 Budget Act which prohibited the CDC from expending any funds for family visits for prisoners convicted of specified sex offenses July 7, 1994. The next day the Budget Act was signed into law and the CDC issued Administrative Bulletin 94/10 on July 14, 1994, effectively eliminating family visits for all prisoners ever convicted of violation of Penal Code Section 288, 288.5 or 289. San Luis Obispo centered Pro-Family Advocates persuaded Satris to file a lawsuit to challenge the restrictions.

"Families are victimized daily simply because they love somebody in prison," said Sandra George, wife of a prisoner and an active member of Pro-Family Advocates. "This must stop. We are fed up with being treated as second-class citizens and we are making a stand against the oppression and lies of the state bureaucracy that cares not for the majority but caters to the minority of moneyed special interests." The prison guards' union gave Andal over $60,000 and has donated large sums to Wilson and other lawmakers who decide bills related to prison expansion. They also provide some 85% of the budget for the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, a vocal opponent of family visits, whose office just happens to be located in the union's Sacramento headquarters.

On December 7, 1994, Marin County Judge Beverly Savitt, issued a preliminary injunction stopping the CDC from restricting family visits pursuant to the 1994 Budget Act. The Court found the Act violated state and federal prohibitions against ex post facto laws. A law is considered ex post facto if it increases the punishment for a person convicted and sentenced before the law was passed. On the heels of that order, Wilson directed Joe Sandaval, Secretary of California's Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, to draft administrative regulations denying family visits for several classes of prisoners, including those covered by the injunction. On February 15, 1995, the CDC applied for an "emergency" rule change to the Office of Administrative Law.

Penal Code Section 5058(e), which took effect January 1, 1995, permits the Director of the CDC, or his designee, to obtain administrative regulation changes on an emergency basis by simply declaring that the new rule or amendment is necessary for the operation of the prison system. At the Legislative hearing on the bill which resulted in this exception to the Administrative Procedures Act, the CDC told lawmakers the normal regulatory process of public notice hearing and written response would only be bypassed in cases of actual emergency such as general insurrection or natural disasters affecting prisons. Yet the new law was used for the first time in an attempt to take family visits.

The temporary suspension of family visits under the emergency exception was supposed to begin February 25. 1995 However, Pro-Family Advocates, FamilyNet and other activist groups mobilized to generate an unprecedented outpouring of public protest. The voice-mail at the Office of Administrative Law was filled, fax machines at the CDC were jammed and hundreds of letters and telephone calls and telegrams opposing the proposed regulation were sent. Some 1,000 prisoners at the Lancaster maximum security prison participated in a general strike. Finally bowing to the pressure the CDC withdrew the February 25th date and issued a notice for an April 27th public hearing on the emergency regulation. May 30, 1995 was set as the new date for commencement of the 150 day suspension period.

At the April 27th hearing over 500 family members, friends, loved ones and supporters of people in prison showed up. Two representatives of the guards' union supported victims' rights group appeared. Ron Foster of Anaheim, California has a son serving life at the state prison in Tehachapi. He spoke of five generations sitting around the dining table during a family visit joining hands in prayer. With tears streaming down his face Ron told a CDC official at the hearing "All I can say is you're making the families the victims by doing this. You just can't imagine what this is going to do to my family."

The anti-family visiting forces have spread lies and half-truths to the public about the program. They claim California is one of only seven states to permit family visits. That's not accurate Several states have furlough and day pass programs even for prisoners sentenced to life and therefore don't need a separate family visiting program. The federal prison system doesn't have family visits, but permits many prisoners to earn passes to spend time at home with their loved ones. The CDC claims the family visiting program was intended for prisoners about to be released. That's also untrue. Reagan started the program as a means of curtailing homosexual assault and other violence in prison. And it's worked. It's the single most successful program in the California prison system.

The CDC flip-flopped on family visits On April 21, 1993, CDC official Michael Neal sent a letter to Andal reporting that "combined correctional experience" found the program lowers recidivism and aids rehabilitation. In a 1989 pamphlet published by the CDC the program was described glowingly, "Good family relationships are believed to enhance the probability of the inmate's successful adjustment to prison and later to his successful reintegration into the community. Therefore the program is believed to be beneficial to society in general." The pamphlet stressed that these visits were much more than "conjugal" in nature but frequently included the prisoner's children, parents or siblings as well as spouse. Studies reported in various correctional magazines show that family visits not only increase a prisoner's likelihood of success of parole but reduce violence and disciplinary problems for prisoners who won't get out again.

The injunction was a victory in a war that's gone on for six years and shows no sign of ending. At least two bills, AB 226 and AB 411, will be heard by the California Legislature later this year. The first bill would eliminate the family visiting program entirely and the second bill is worded identically to the CDC's failed emergency administrative regulation change. The activists fighting to keep family visits are volunteers who must take time off their jobs on short notice and travel hundreds of miles to Sacramento in order to testify before lawmakers. They don't have the funding, free transportation, printing, office space, free telephones, political clout, or media access of the guards' union sponsored groups.

Family visits even for prisoners who will never be released have a positive impact on society. The parents, wife, husband, brother, sister or children of a life prisoner are positively affected by these visits. These people were never convicted of committing a crime but taking family visits punishes them. Most people in prison are poor and keeping their families together is very important to them and to the community. Eliminating family visits will surely destroy many of these families. And there's the irony. Wilson and his ilk loudly espouse family values out of one side of their mouths while raging against the family visiting program out of the other. As one lifer at Tehachapi put it "Sometimes the only thing standing between me and serious trouble is a family visit. I don't get time off and I won't be paroled. Spending a day or two alone with my wife and kids means the world to me. Take that and I ain't got nothing to lose."

[The author is President of FamilyNet, a pro-family prison visiting advocacy group based in Costa Mesa, California. FamilyNet, 300 Santa Isabel, Suite C, Costa Mesa, CA 92627-1414.]

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Related legal case

Pro Family Advocates v. Gomez