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California Slashes Family Visits

The young Hispanic woman, juggling a squirming infant under each arm, began to cry as she read the notice posted on the wall of the visitor processing building at Lancaster prison. For months prisoner rights advocates had been warning visitors, trying to organize resistance, but few believed it would ever happen. The California Department of Corrections issued administrative regulations severely limiting the family visiting program. As the young woman quietly sobbed, four prison guards openly laughed at her pain.

On November 1, 1996, the CDC initiated severe restrictions on family visits. Prison staff throughout the state received special briefings concerning the regulation change which excluded a large number of men and women from the program. The restrictions are the result of an almost decade long effort by self-styled victims' rights advocates, the prison guards union and right-wing politicians to end family visits in California.

The following classes of prisoners are no longer eligible to receive family visits: Anyone sentenced to life without parole; anyone with a life top who doesn't have a release date within three years; anyone convicted of specified sex offenses, including rape, statutory rape, oral copulation, sex with a minor, child pornography and lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor; anyone convicted of a violent or sexual offense against a family member or minor; Close A and B Custody designations; anyone found guilty of a category A or B serious prison rule violation within the past twelve months; and, anyone found guilty at a prison disciplinary hearing of "drug trafficking" in prison at any time. In addition, people housed in administrative segregation, a security housing unit, a reception center or on death row are not allowed family visits.

According to CDC Director James Gomez, "[Prisoners] will still be able to meet with their family members and friends in a supervised setting during regular visiting hours. The changes only affect unsupervised, overnight family visits for specified high-risk offenders." Referring to the trial court's granting of defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings in Pro-Family Advocates v. James Gomez (Marin County Superior Court No. 162051), the Director said, "the courts have ruled decisively in our favor. It's time to return the family visiting program to its original intent--family reunification for those [prisoners] who will be returning to the community in the near future."

Actually, that was not the original intent. Some 23 years ago, former Governor Ronald Reagan started the program in an attempt to stem the tide of violence and sexual assaults sweeping through the state's prison system. Governor Reagan, an arch-conservative and no friend of people in prison, reasoned that if prisoners were able to earn family visits by remaining free of disciplinary problems the violence might subside.

He was right. The family visiting program proved to be a success. For 1993, the last year the CDC kept records on family visits, 27,900 prisoners participated in the program. Out of that number, there were only a handful of incidents, most involving the arrest of a visitor for an outstanding traffic warrant. In the time the family visiting program has operated, violence and sexual assault rates have steadily declined.

"This is a dark day for families with a relative in prison," said Ann Sullivan, a founding member of FamilyNet, a statewide prison visitor organization. "One out of every three black men between 18 and 39 in this state are either in prison, jail or on supervised probation or parole. This is a hateful policy aimed directly at innocent mothers, fathers, wives, husbands and children. And since the overwhelming majority of people in prison in California are members of a minority group, this policy is racist." She continued, "I'm afraid we may see a return of the violence that existed in the past as a result of restricting family visits."

"This is another example of the guards' union money and the victims' rights caterwauling rather than legislators and penal experts controlling prison policy," remarked Ken Hartman, serving life without parole at Lancaster prison. Ken is 34 years old. He's been locked up since 19 for beating a man to death during a drunken brawl in the park. A crime he deeply regrets. His daughter, Alia, conceived on a family visit, will celebrate her first birthday soon. "When I look at that beautiful baby girl in the visiting room, my heart just melts," said a lifer who declined to be identified. "If a prisoner can produce something so precious out of these tragic circumstances, isn't that more than enough reason to keep family visits?" The reaction of younger, Three Strikes, lifers is harder to gauge.

"Man, I got 25 years to life for stealing a pair of fucking 501s. Now they telling me I ain't never gonna be able to spend time alone with my mama again. She's old. She'll be dead long for I get out. This ain't right, it just ain't right," said a gang banger from the South Central district of Los Angeles. Prisoner rights advocates are discussing several options to restore the family visiting program.

Michael Satris, the Prison Law Office attorney who represented the plaintiff's in Pro-Family has declined to take the case further. Richard Dangler, a Sacramento area attorney who practices post-conviction and civil rights law, has agreed to file a civil rights action in federal court seeking to overturn the restrictions. Dangler wants $30,000 in fees. So far, only about half the first $7,500 down payment has been raised by donations. FamilyNet joined with Martha Riley, a prisoner rights activist who helped raise money to pay Satris, to form the Kick-A-Buck campaign. Kick-A-Buck fliers urge prisoners and their family members to donate funds for the federal lawsuit.

While keeping his litigation game plan secret, Dangler anticipates attacking the restrictions on the ground that people in prison and their family members outside have a privacy right protected under the First Amendment to family and marital relations. The Prisoners Rights Union plans to lobby lawmakers in the coming months to set the stage for the introduction of a Visitors' Bill of Rights, which would guarantee seven day a week regular visits, family visits to prisoners who earn them and facilities for children and the elderly in prison visiting rooms. Meanwhile, few prisoners will be receiving family visits under the new regulation.

"So far, only seven prisoners at this facility are eligible to receive a family visit under the new rules," said J. Medina, acting facility captain at one of Lancaster's two maximum security yards. "Personally, I'm against taking family visits from all lifers. I agree with the ban against child molesters, wife abusers and such. But, my opinion isn't worth much," Medina said. Officially, the guards union seeks to abolish the family visiting program altogether. Unofficially, seasoned guards have their own opinions. "This is stupid, just plain stupid," said a sergeant at Lancaster.

"We all know lifers have nothing to program for. They don't get time off . Few jobs have pay numbers. The most valuable tool we had for controlling their behavior was family visits and now Sacramento has taken that away. It's as if they're intentionally trying to provoke violence in prison."

Study after study has shown that prisoners who participate in family visiting programs are less likely to break the rules inside. For the 86% of prisoners who will be released one day, the importance of strong family ties is invaluable. Those who've maintained family contact through regular family visits have a much greater chance of staying out once released. But the restrictions are part of a campaign that has nothing to do with effective management of prisons or a concern for public safety. It's fueled by the very stuff that seems to keep the state Capitol standing, hot air and hatred.

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