Visiting a family member in prison presents its own bundle of challenges. Just knowing what to expect can reduce stress. Being prepared can raise the bar for positive visitation experiences, possibly snowballing into more visits, and hopefully, improved relationships.
Since studies point to lower recidivism rates for prisoners who stay connected to supportive family members, positive prison visits end up benefiting everyone: prisoners, families, and the community. For the 2.7 million children and youth who have at least one incarcerated parent, visiting their parent(s) can strengthen family bonds.
To be prepared, consider the following information the first time visiting someone in prison. Please keep in mind that rules vary among prisons.
BEFORE VISITING PRISON
Be sure your name is on the prisoner’s pre-approved visiting list for people age 18 and older. Information on the form allows officials to do background checks to approve or deny visitation. Most facilities require this form, but verify with the facility to be sure. Some facilities also require an authorization form for children.
BE ON TIME
Check the facility’s visitation hours, which are typically weekends and holidays, and possibly additional days depending on the facility and security level. Visit the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website to see a list of federal prisons; for state or private prisons, directly contact the facility.
BE AWARE OF WHAT YOU CAN BRING
Check the facility’s policy for what is allowed in the visiting room. Generally, visitors can only bring in identification (such as a driver’s license), a single car key, eyeglasses, small bills or change for vending machines (if applicable) in visitation rooms.
No medications, tobacco products, or any illegal substances are allowed. Cell phones or other electronic devices are also not permitted.
Other restrictions might include rules about bringing in food or gifts.
DURING THE PRISON VISIT
Wear appropriate clothing. Avoid provocative, revealing items and anything similar to prison clothing such as khaki or green military-type. Visitors may be denied access if dress code policies are violated.
Give yourself an extra 15-20 minutes to fill out paperwork. Be prepared to be searched before being admitted into the visiting room. Searches may include a pat down by an officer of the same gender and a pass through a metal detector. All visitors must be searched, including children.
Before bringing children, consider visiting alone first so you can explain what to expect.
Show courtesy to all correctional staff, other visitors, and prisoners to ensure a positive visiting experience for everyone.
SHOW AFFECTION IN MODERATION
Handshakes, hugs, and affection (in good taste) are usually allowed at the beginning and end of a visit.
To keep the visiting area orderly and to prevent the distribution of contraband, security staff may limit physical contact.
Be aware of you and your children’s behavior to avoid risk of losing visiting privileges.
BE A GOOD LISTENER
Extend a listening ear to the prisoner you are visiting. A little understanding can go a long way.
AFTER THE PRISON VISIT
Mail a letter to the prisoner to continue building the relationship. Be sure to check with the facility first to ensure permission.
Encourage the prisoner to get involved in prison programs to cope with prison life and to take reentry classes for a successful reentry plan.
Explore involvement in a local church that provides support for prisoners, former prisoners, and their families.
Consider involvement in Celebrate Recovery, a nationwide Christ-centered recovery program that is forward-looking and emphasizes personal responsibility and spiritual growth.
Or check out an online support group such as DailyStrenth that is dedicated to families impacted by incarceration, or the National Association for Christian Recovery that provides resources and free online training in topics including 12-step recovery, parenting addicted children, recovering from childhood trauma, etc.
Finally, be a part of Prison Fellowship’s Second Prison Project™. Find out how you can help your loved one and others with reentry and adjusting to life with a criminal record.