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Massachusetts Prisoners and Visitors Challenge Restrictive Visitation Rules

by Bill Barton 

More restrictive regulations for visits in Massachusetts prisons – originally adopted in March 2018 and later amended effective March 1, 2019 – have spurred at least five lawsuits against the state’s Department of Correction (DOC) by both prisoners and visitors. At stake is restriction of an element of prison life – visitation from a prisoner’s family and friends – which research has repeatedly shown not only reduces recidivism but also makes prisons safer.

Under the new DOC rules, all visitors must be pre-screened. Each prisoner may submit names for pre-screening until his or her visitation list reaches its limit: five (amended to eight in 2019) for maximum-security facilities, eight for medium-security prisons and 10 for minimum-security facilities. Prisoners with large immediate families may petition for special exceptions.

A prisoner may adjust his or her list only once every 120 days as of March 2019, though that was up from twice a year when the new rules took effect in 2018. Prior to that time the DOC allowed an unlimited number of visitors, who were required only to show up at scheduled visitation times, fill out a form, present ID and submit to a search. 

Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Communications Christopher M. Fallon said the DOC developed the new visitation rules after research showed the average number of visitors per prisoner was just three.

“The majority of prisoners will see no reduction of visitors,” he said.

DOC spokesman Jason Dobson added the rule change was made “in response to an increase in drug and contraband-related incidents involving visitors.” He added the prison system also “uses dogs trained to passively detect drugs as tools to address this problem.” 

But a report from the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) pointed out that the DOC already had authority to ban specific visitors for misconduct or those with a criminal record.

Leslie Walker, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLS), a nonprofit that advocates for the humane treatment of prisoners, questioned how the visitation rule change would affect recidivism given “there is plenty of research out there” that shows maintaining social and family contacts is crucial to reducing a prisoner’s chance of reoffending after release.

Her colleague, PLS litigation director James Pingeon, also disputed the counter-contraband rationale for the new visitation restrictions, noting that prisoners are already strip-searched after every visit.

A public hearing in September 2018 regarding the use of dogs when searching visitors – the subject of a lawsuit filed by PLS and the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU that is now before the state’s highest court [see: PLN, April 2016, p.9] – turned into a litany of criticism over the DOC’s new visitation rules.

“We understand and fully appreciate the need for security measures to prevent the introduction of illegal items, but I don’t see how these changes prevent such things from happening,” said Karen Pulido, a former prison guard whose adult son is serving a life sentence. “Regular visits and communication are the only way to foster and nurture family bonds and community connections. It’s the only way to facilitate a healthy return to the community.” 

PPI’s research indicates that the number of visitors per prisoner decreases as he or she is incarcerated farther from home. The DOC said over half its prisoners – 52 percent – come from ten different cities or towns. This means visitors must usually drive long distances to the rural areas where most state prisons are located.

“It is already a hardship for friends and families to visit people in prison,” noted Karter Reed, a former prisoner who testified at a September 2016 public hearing just after the new rules were first announced.

Can either of you pick five people you deal with on a regular basis for six months?” asked one prisoner’s mother, Lucinda Fisher, when she confronted DOC officials at the September 2018 hearing, referring to the initial visitor cap for maximum-security prisons. “Can you narrow it down to five? Can Governor Baker narrow it down to five?”

“What struck me most about the prisons is the absence of any humanity,” added Mary Valerio, whose husband is incarcerated. “To the DOC the men are only numbers, but to us they are husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and family members.” 

As for the use of dogs to search visitors, Watertown councilor Caroline Bays – who visits a friend in a state prison – argued that visitors smuggle only a small fraction of the drugs that are brought into correctional facilities. She warned the canines will frighten some visitors, especially children, and that “visits will plummet, families will suffer and drugs will continue to make their way into prison as you focus on the wrong people.”

Attorneys from PLS have filed lawsuits against the new visitation rules on behalf of five prisoners and their family members:

• Mary Todd, 68, serving a life sentence in a medium-security prison, who wants her visitor cap raised to allow visits from more of her 13 children, 38 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren;

• John Stote, who fears his ill mother may die before she is approved to be on his visitor list;

• Vincent Rivera, a prisoner with family in both New York and Philadelphia, who claims it is not possible to know which five people might visit him in time to get their names on his approved list;

• Rashard Brown, who had to leave his sister off his list in order to make room for his girlfriend due to the visitor cap; and

• Kenneth Sequin, who was forced to choose between his siblings and in-laws on the one hand and a friend who had visited him every month for 23 years.

The recently-filed lawsuits claim that “these provisions are arbitrary, capricious and an exaggerated response to the DOC’s purported concerns about preventing visitors from introducing drugs into the facility.” PLS attorney Jessica White also warned that capping the number of visitors is “going to do a lot more harm than good.” 

White elaborated, saying, “The evidence supports that efforts should be made to make visitation more accessible wherever possible. Over the last year [2018], DOC has been moving in the wrong direction on visitation, substantially restricting and reducing visitation without any rational basis.” 

According to PLS, “Massachusetts is now one of the most restrictive states in the country” with respect to prison visitation rules. 

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Sources: bostonglobe.com, masslive.com, recorder.com, mass.gov, bostonmagazine.com