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Oregon Expands Visiting Opportunities to Reduce Recidivism

Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) officials are working to expand prisoner visiting opportunities, in response to a 2011 study that found a positive correlation between prison visits and recidivism rates.

In November 2011, the Minnesota Department of Corrections released a study, concluding that “visitation significantly decreased the risk of recidivism,” and that “visits from siblings, in-laws, fathers and clergy were the most beneficial in reducing the risk of recidivism, whereas visits from ex-spouses significantly increased the risk.”

Making prison visitation policies “more ‘visitor friendly’ could yield public safety benefits by helping offenders establish a continuum of social support from prison to the community,” researchers suggested.

ODOC officials were encouraged by the study’s findings, but alarmed to discover that 59 percent of their 14,000 prisoners received no visitors. Prison officials were forced to ask themselves hard questions about whether their policies were to blame, said ODOC spokeswoman Betty Bernt. They created a workgroup to examine visiting policies and increase the number of prisoners who maintain family connections.

As a result, ODOC officials have considered easing rules governing visiting eligibility for people with criminal convictions, and prisoners housed in segregation units. They are also thinking about offering trained volunteer mentors and increasing visiting hours and events.

“Ideas for possible future events include a movie and popcorn night, ice cream social night, craft night, and so on,” according to a recent ODOC Facebook announcement.

In October 2012, ODOC began offering video visiting. “When my son was transferred to Snake River in Ontario - the frequency of the visits were limited to once a month and less often in the winter months,” said Gretchen Vala. “My mother (who just celebrated her 91st birthday) ... was not able to make the trip to Ontario and hasn’t seen my son in over 6 years. They’ve stayed in contact through letters and phone calls and while that has been good - it isn’t the same thing as seeing your loved one in person.”

Although video visits are expensive, at $19.80 for a 30 minute call, “it is difficult to express the joy and love that shone on my mom’s face as she saw her grandson for the first time in 75 months,” said Vala.

“To date, there have been 29,000 completed video visits,” ODOC reported in early 2014. At $19.80 per call, that translates into $574,200 in just 18 months. Prisoners may also now send and receive emails through their MP3 players; for a fee, of course.

ODOC reports that as a result of these new services, 60 percent of prisoners now receive some form of visitation, a 31 percent increase since 2012.

Source: The Oregonian; Oregon CURE Newsletter (Spring 2013)

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