Make the most out of your trip to visit your loved one in prison.

Like an onion, most topics have many layers to them. The subject of prison visitation is no exception. A series could be written on the various aspects of the visiting experience. Everything from transportation issues to entry procedures and back again.

I’d like to address something different, something I call “visiting room sabotage.” It’s that thing that happens when you were hoping for a good visit and it suddenly goes south. It’s when, by the close of the event, both parties wind up hurt and angry and later feel guilty for sabotaging their own visit.

It was the same when I was in prison, and it’s the same now. How often, for example, have you and your visitor overheard these selfish phrases coming from an adjoining table or booth? Maybe it was yours?

“What took you so long? I’ve been waiting for two hours! You said you’d be here at 6:30.”

“Did you call so and so? Why not? I told you to take care of it. Why didn’t you?”

“You don’t care what I’m going through! You can just get up and walk out of here when we’re done!”

“I thought you were going to send me that care package. I ain’t received nothing!”

“Can’t you leave more than 30 lousy bucks in my canteen?”

“How come you haven’t been answering the phone?”

“Who’ve you been seeing?”

“And on it goes. What happened? Where did all that anger come from? How did they wind up hurting the person they most love? Why did the visit have to end on such a sour note?”

Or sometimes it’s the visitor who brings in the negative focus:

“You don’t know what it’s like having to take care of the kids by myself.”

“Joey’s doing lousy in school. He won’t listen to me. He gets in fights all the time.”

“Can’t you send me more money? I can’t pay this month’s rent.”

“Your phone calls cost too much. I can’t accept them anymore.”

“I heard someone else has been visiting you. Who is it?”

“How dare you accuse me! We wouldn’t even be in this mess if it weren’t for you!”

And on it goes. What happened? Where did all that anger come from? How did they wind up hurting the person they most love? Why did the visit have to end on such a sour note?

Some visits are rightfully doomed from the beginning, as when a wife and a girlfriend show up at the same time. Others just seem to take an unexpected turn for the worse. I’m thinking of husband and wife visits, or those of parents and children.

“visiting room sabotage. It’s that thing that happens when you were hoping for a good visit and it suddenly goes south.”


A lot of the stress has to do with the pain and frustration of separation. The prisoner is feeling it; the visitor is feeling it. Little things can suddenly get big. The time seems so long, and the candle of hope seems to be flickering. The whole thing is just so frustrating! The longer the sentence, the harder it is.

But the basic problem is that two worlds have collided in a no-man’s land called the Visiting Room. And unless compassion and love override selfishness and self-pity, the results will be dismal.

Men and women in prison often express to me that they know how hard it is for their loved ones to visit them. Distances can be great and gas prices high. Some of their visitors have very little extra money and have to rely on public transportation or the kindness of friends to get there. Maybe they had to arrange for a babysitter or take time off work. Responsibilities had to be postponed in order to get to the prison. And then there is the whole, humiliating experience of the entry process! The lines and the lockers, the searches and the metal detectors. By the time they finally sit down, they feel like they’ve been caught up in an exhausting whirlwind of experiences. They know the inmate had only to wash up, comb his or her hair, and bounce off to the visiting room when his or her name was called.

But the prisoner lives in a crude and negative world, and it’s not always easy to shake it off when it comes time for the meeting. For the visitor, especially if it is a spouse, the demands and difficulties of life on the outside have become twice as hard.


Following are 10 guidelines I would suggest after observing these visits for nearly 30 years in Christian prison ministry. Maybe one or two will be helpful to you.

  1. Verbally acknowledge that each other’s stress is real. You are temporarily living in two different worlds. Acknowledge the differences can create misunderstandings. Empathize, but don’t pretend to fully understand the other’s stress factors.
  2. Give each other adequate time to express your feelings. I recommend the one doing time allow the visitor to be the one who talks about his or her life first. The prison world is a small one; by listening to your loved one’s experiences first, it’ll help to pull you out of it a little bit.
  3. Give each other the freedom to be honest about your feelings. (If you can’t handle the truth, don’t ask for it.)
  4. There is a time for everything.  Agree together whether or not the timing is right to bring up certain issues. If one (or both) of you is not emotionally ready to handle something, you must mutually agree to put it on a back burner until the time is right.
  5. . Listen with your heart as well as your ears. For the men, keep in mind that, if the visitor is a wife or girlfriend, she doesn’t necessarily want you to fix the problem; she just wants you to know how she feels.  (Since you are already feeling frustrated at your inability to fix outside problems, this should actually be a help to you.)
  6. . Identify the real issues. (But do this with gentleness and respect.) Most of the time, the surface issues aren’t the real problem. Sometimes the anger is rooted in unresolved conflicts. For example, family members may be hiding their anger over all the pain and turmoil the incarcerated one has caused, but be afraid to express it.
  7. The conversation shouldn’t be dominated by one person. Agree to give each other equal time to talk about what has been going on in your lives
  8. Be kind. It’s not all about you. I once heard someone say: “Be kind to each other. Everyone is fighting big battles.” The shrink-wrapped world of prison life can cause one to become very self-focused.  And, just as easily, the demands and responsibilities of outside life can cause visitors to become the same way.
  9. Make a commitment at the beginning of each visit that you will make no unreasonable demands upon the other. Stick by it.
  10. Ask for practical ways in which you can be of help to each other.

Here’s a bonus guideline for Christian readers: (a) Keep a prayer list.  (b) Read the same Bible passages on the same days and discuss them at your visit.

Lennie Spitale is the author of Prison Ministry and a seminar instructor with Prison Fellowship.