The best day in an inmate’s incarceration is the day he is released. The second best is when he receives a visit. Many who are incarcerated never get visits. They go for years without seeing family or friends face to face, relying instead on phone calls, email, or letters for communication. There is still an even smaller minority which are totally isolated and cut off from any contact with those they knew in the free world.
I was one of the fortunate ones, over the course of eight years I averaged a visit once every three weeks or so. My parents made the trek to where ever I was at great personal sacrifice. I was lucky in that the facilities where I was incarcerated were approximately one and a half hours drive from their home. Some facilities in the upper peninsula could have been more than an eight-hour drive to reach.
A typical visit would consume at least six hours of their day. One and a half hours to travel to the prison, one hour to be processed into the visiting room, two hours to visit, and one and a half hours to return home. For those with greater distances to travel, less reliable transportation, limited resources, and inflexible schedules, visits to prison might occur infrequently, if at all.
I knew a guy who caught his case while visiting from out of state. His parents came to visit him once a year but would visit for two whole days. That was both a major blessing for the inmate and a major sacrifice for his parents.
I’ve seen men reunited, however briefly, with their wives, children, girlfriends, home boys, clergy and even their employers. In every case it took planning, coordination, and fortitude in addition to finances to make these visits happen. You can’t just show up at a prison to see an inmate, there is a process involved.
Visits start with an application form. An inmate must submit a list of names and contact information to the unit counselor. The perspective visitor must complete a visitor application form and submit it weeks before the initial visit in order to get MDOC approval. Once approved then it is time to schedule a visit. Most facilities have small visiting rooms that can contain less than 100 people. Given that most of the prisons in Michigan have doubled the number of prisoners housed than that they were originally designed for it is unfortunate that the visiting rooms were not expanded as well. Visits then can only occur under some organization such as odd/even days for odd/even prisoner ID numbers. Multi-level facilities that cannot share space, such as a Level I, II, IV must set aside blocks of time for Level IV separate from Level I & II general population. Budget cut backs to the MDOC have also reduced the days of the week that visitation can occur due to staffing and manpower allocation. Every facility is different and you must check for their specific visitation days and times.
Once the big day arrives it is hurry up and wait. Depending on how busy the visiting room is and close it is to count time or shift change, your visitors may have to wait for some period of time while they wait to be processed into the visiting room. All visitors are subject to metal detectors and body pat downs to screen for contraband (think TSA airport security). In today’s technology culture cell phones and watches are not permitted, neither is currency. Visitors must purchase a plastic debit card in the lobby of the facility and put money on it for use in the vending machines.
In my experience visitation is both the best and worst of times. Visits are great, but never long enough. Time flies when you can be with your loved ones after being separated for so long. But you are usually crammed in like sardines, and a full visiting room gets hot and loud. There may be cards or board games, but very limited table space to play, let alone space for food and drinks.
Vending machines in the visiting room are like Vegas slot machines. You lose more than you win. Vending machines are owned and operated by local vending companies, so cards purchased at one facility probably won’t be valid at another facility. Depending on the time of day and how busy the visiting room is, the vending machines may have a very limited selection of things like sandwiches and desserts.
Machines malfunctioning and taking your money but not giving you any products are par for the course. You can’t get your money back at the facility, and depending on the vendor, you may or may not get a refund through the mail. A lot of potential revenue is lost by these vending companies because they can’t keep these machines fully stocked and operational at all times. Since visits may cause an inmate to miss the chow hall service more than once I have had to make due with only a few snacks or wait to eat something out of my locker when I got back to my housing unit.
The prices charged tend to be 25% higher than what one would expect to pay for what is best described as “gas station” food. And then the amount of money lost trying to work the machines may ultimately double the cost that your people have to pay to provide you with a meal. I always told my parents it was them not the food that I appreciated most about the visits.
The COs set the tone for the visiting room experience and while there were a few that had customer service and people skills when dealing with the people caning in for visits, many COs treated them almost as badly as they treated the inmates. Some COs would actually recognize my parents as regular visitors while there were others that were openly hostile and rude. Then there were those COs who didn’t regularly work in the visiting room but are pressed into service by an absence and have no clue how to organize and control the large crowds coming and going, resulting in chaos.
There aren’t any restrooms in the visiting area so visitors and inmates have to processed out and back in, and this can take a while. It takes a real iron man to last more than two hours in the visiting room.
Visits may also be terminated if there is a backlog of people trying to get in for a visit and the room is already at capacity. Holidays and weekends are the worst. Unless your people were from more than 500 miles away, staff could terminate your visit to make room for others. More than once my visits were cut short because of this.
Having regular meaningful contact with family and friends is a way to ensure that inmates will have the necessary social stability to survive in the world when they are released from prison, yet visits are made so uncomfortable that it takes a major commitment to keep returning to endure such an arduous ordeal. You would think from a PR perspective the MDOC would want to use visits as an opportunity to put their best face forward for the public coming through their doors. Now granted some people have been caught attempting to smuggle contraband into facilities on visits and occasionally a wife/girlfriend has tried to perform a sexual favor in the visiting room, but these few instances are exceptions and those coming in should be treated with respect even if the inmates aren’t.
Visits are humiliating for inmates in that upon exiting the visiting room they are subjected to a strip search to ensure that nothing is being brought back into the facility. I have had to wait more than an hour after my visit ended to be processed out, so I could return to my housing unit. So, between waiting to get processed into and out of a visit, a two-hour visit took closer to four hours, especially when count time or shift changes occurred and prisoner movement was halted.
At least these were contact visits. In county jail there are no contact visits. Visits occurred with glass viewing and phones. Some jails have gone to video visits so you don’t even get to see your people face to face. Everything is done in the name of security, but in reality, it is more about inconvenience that it places upon the staff to deal with the public and a failure to appreciate how a little good will would go a long way towards prisoner morale, which ultimately translates into a safer, less stressful prison environment.