A report describing a study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) shows that prisoners who receive regular visits while in prison are 13% less likely to commit new felonies and 25% less likely to be technical violators of their release conditions. The study involved 16,400 DOC prisoners who were released between 2003 and 2007.
DOC director of research Grant Duwe noted how this information could translate into savings for the cash-strapped state even in the case of technical violators, who spend an average of nine months in prison before being rereleased.
"The ability to make a successful transition from prison to rebuilding a normal life can be measured by visits and shows there are significant savings in public costs," said Duwe. "Just going back to prison for a technical violation of probation costs $9,000 a pop, so you can see how it becomes expensive."
The report begins with an excellent overview of research on the relationship between prison visitation and recidivism, including recent studies in Florida and Canada which also positively correlated prison visits with a reduction in recidivism. It then described the visitation rules which apply to all DOC prisons. Under the rules, each visit is limited to a maximum of two hours with 18 hours of visits per month allowed for prisoners in the most secure prisons and 36 monthly hours for those in lower security facilities.
The study examined the relationship between the prisoner and visitors to a greater extent than any previous study. A total of 16 categories of relationships were included in the study. For each category, 16 measures noted such quantities as total number of visits, monthly number of visits and how close the visits were to the release of the prisoner.
The study showed that 61% of prisoners received at least one visit while incarcerated. The average number of visits per prisoner was 36, an average of two visits per month. The average number of unique visitors was 3. Nearly half of all prisoners received a visit from a friend, about a third received a visit from their mothers and about a fourth from a sibling.
By the end of June 2010, 38% of all prisoners had been convicted of a new felony and 42% were technical violators. Receiving a visit reduced the probability of conviction for a new felony by 13%. Each additional visit reduced the probability by 0.1% and receiving one visit per month reduced it by another 0.9%. Visits closer to the release date were more important to reducing the likelihood of felony reconviction, reducing it by 3.6%. Each additional individual visitor resulted in a 3% reduction.
The likelihood of a technical violation was reduced by 25% by any visit. Each additional visit reduced it by 0.1%, but receiving one visit per month reduced it by another 3.3%. Visits closer to the release date reduced the rate by 12.5% and each additional individual visitor reduced it by 4.8%.
The relationship between the prisoner and visitor was especially important to reductions in felony reconviction rates. A visit from a mentor had the greatest effect, reducing the rate 29%, while clergy visits reduced it 24%. One in-law visit reduced the rate 21%, whereas reductions were 10% for a sibling visit, 9% for a visit by another relative and 7% for a visit by a friend. Visits by former spouses significantly increased the probability of conviction for a new felony. Similar reductions were observed for revocations of any kind except that a visit from a father resulted in significant reduction of the likelihood of technical violations, not new convictions.
The report noted that many DOC prisons fail to encourage visitation in that the visitation facilities are dirty, cold, unpleasant, crowded and provide little privacy. It suggested that the state would be well served in improving the quality of visitation. However, this would do little for the nearly 40% of prisoners who receive no visits. Therefore, it also suggested that the DOC "consider allocating greater resources that are geared towards identifying sources of social support for high-risk offenders who are less likely to be visited" and study the effect distance between the prison and potential visitors has on visitation.
There are, of course, many reasons that prisons discourage visitation. They don't like civilians in their bailiwick and don't appreciate any outside scrutiny. They view it as a threat to security and potential source of contraband. Furthermore, prisons have little incentive with the reduction of recidivism which, if taken to its logical extreme, would eliminate prisons. Hopefully, the legislature will take the initiative in improving conditions of visitation the prisons, if for no other reason than to save money in tight budget times.
Sources: Minneapolis Star-Tribune; "The Effect of Prison Visitation on Offender Recidivism" (Nov. 2011), available online at www.doc.state.mn.us
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