This article presents a summary of the study’s findings. The full study and data set will be published in a forthcoming volume of the Yale Law and Policy Review: Chesa Boudin, Trevor Stutz & Aaron Littman, “Prison Visitation Policies: A Fifty State Survey,” 32 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. (forthcoming January 2014).
A collaboration between law students and correctional administrators recently produced the first ever fifty-state study of prison visitation policies. The study, conducted by the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School in collaboration with the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), offers a window into the varied state and federal visitation policies, and provides a new opportunity to share best practices.1
The study’s findings were presented at ASCA’s annual training conference in October 2012 alongside presentations by state directors from the Ohio and Minnesota departments of corrections, which highlighted the impact of visitation on prison safety and recidivism.
Importance of Prison
Visitation is the primary interaction between prisoners and the public. Visitation policies impact recidivism, prisoners’ and their families’ quality of life, public safety, and prison security, transparency and accountability. Yet many policies are inaccessible to visitors and researchers. Given the wide-ranging effects of visitation, it is important to understand the landscape of visitation policies and then, where possible, identify best practices and uncover policies that may be counterproductive or constitutionally infirm. Comparative analysis of the sort undertaken in this study will hopefully not only inform academics but also empower prisoners and their families to demand meaningful exercise of their First Amendment right to association. In the same vein, the study aims to encourage regulators and prison administrators to implement productive reforms.
Comparative analysis of visiting is particularly valuable given that the contours of prison visitation are determined almost exclusively by administrative discretion, unconstrained except at the margins by judicial interference. The Supreme Court and other federal courts have been largely deferential to prison administrators, granting them wide latitude generally, and in the realm of visitation regulations specifically.2 As a result, decisions made by corrections officials are among the primary determinants of whether and how prisoners are able to maintain relationships with their parents, spouses, siblings and children.
Visitors often represent the only contact prisoners have with the world outside the prison walls, to which they will most likely return after serving out their sentences. The strength of the connections prisoners maintain with their communities may depend substantially on visitation regulations promulgated by administrators. The nearly unrestrained discretion officials have in crafting and implementing prison visitation regulations makes clear how consequential these policy choices are, both to prisoners’ experiences of incarceration and to the success of the correctional enterprise. And, of course, prison visitation policies also have direct and profound implications that transcend the prison walls for families and friends of prisoners.
The Ohio and Minnesota Studies
At the October 2012 annual ASCA training, the Yale authors presented their study alongside Gary Mohr, Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and Tom Roy, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
The Minnesota study, one of the largest and most in-depth of its kind, concluded that prisoners who received visits while incarcerated were substantially less likely to recidivate. Tracking over 16,000 prisoners released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2007,3 the study showed that, when controlling for numerous other factors, prisoners who received visits were 13% less likely to be reconvicted of a felony after release and 25% less likely to have their probation or parole revoked.4 The study also identified administrative policies as one of three major barriers to visitation, alongside the remote location of many facilities and the uncomfortable setting of the visits themselves.5 Additionally, the study concluded that visits from certain people (e.g. fathers, mentors and clergy) had significantly more effect.6
The Ohio study concluded that visitation had a positive impact on prisoner behavior and prison safety. It found a statistically significant relationship between increased visitation and decreased rule infractions, with even one visit found to have a positive effect, and visits from parents or guardians found to be particularly valuable.7
Taken together, the two studies underscore the fact that an increased number of visits to prisoners can have beneficial effects on both prison safety and offender reentry.
The Yale Study: Methodology
Complementing these two empiracle studies, the Yale study allows for state-by-state comparison across a group of common categories of visitation-related policies. In addition to identifying commonalities and variation in several enumerated categories, the study documents outlier policies revealed in the course of research. The Yale authors worked with ASCA to track down difficult-to-find policy documents, and received written feedback from nearly all fifty state departments of corrections to ensure accuracy.
The study also analyzes in more detail the range of approaches that states take to two forms of visitation at opposite ends of the associational spectrum: virtual visitation and overnight family (sometimes called “conjugal”) visitation.
While at least three layers of rules govern prison visitation – administrative regulations (often general grants of rulemaking authority to correctional administrators), policy directives (more detailed rules promulgated by those administrators) and facility-specific rules – the study focuses at the level of statewide policy directives for two primary reasons.8 First, the directives articulate policy more comprehensively than institution-specific rules,9 and in much more detail than most regulations. Second, policy directives are most amenable to systemic assessment, and, where appropriate, reform. Policy directives are issued by a single, common entity – the director of the state’s DOC.
The Yale Study: General Findings
Substantial consistency and significant commonalities exist across all the jurisdictions surveyed. However, there was tremendous variation as well. Visitation is almost uniformly treated as a privilege rather than a right. Some jurisdictions generally restrict visitation, while other states specifically encourage and promote visitation as a core part of the rehabilitative process. Although the various state policies exist on a continuum, these extremes symbolize divergent policy approaches to visitation and suggest key questions for further exploration: Do states that promote and encourage visitation have better or worse outcomes in terms of institutional security or recidivism? To what extent does the general attitude towards visitation articulated in policy directives correlate with actual visitation policy?
No clear regional, geographic or political trends appear to explain variation in policies. One might expect that certain policies – for example, overnight family visits – would exist in a group of states with certain common characteristics. Instead, the states in each category do not appear to have much in common. The nine states that allow for overnight family visits, for example, are not from any one or even two geographic regions, and it is unclear what else of significance California, Colorado, Connecticut, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, South Dakota and Washington have in common.
Further, while the states often serve as laboratories of policy experimentation, one might expect some harmonization of best practices. If there has been such a harmonization or cross-pollination process, it is not apparent in several key areas. For example, North Carolina allows just one visit per week for a maximum of two hours,10 while New York allows its maximum-security offenders 365 days of visiting per year.11 While South Dakota allows only two people (plus family members) to be placed on a prisoner’s list of approved visitors,12 prisoners in California may list an unlimited number of visitors.13
Some of the key findings from the Yale study presented at the ASCA training conference are as follows:
When to Visit: Twenty-eight jurisdictions have a floor for the minimum number of days or hours visitation must be made available. For example, in Georgia, “[a] minimum of SIX (6) hours shall be allotted each day for visitation periods on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Normally, there will be no restrictions placed on the length of visits during the facility’s established visitation periods.”14 Several other states provide for ceilings to visitation hours. Oregon allows only one visit per day per visitor on weekends and holidays;15 Utah allows no more than two hours ...