The Hawaii Department of Public Safety is revising a visitation policy at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, a move that it says will give more options to families and friends of inmates.

But some prison-reform advocates aren’t so sure.

Under a new policy to be introduced next month, OCCC inmates will be allowed to have visitors on any day of the week, instead of just on the weekends.

And the visits can be scheduled up to seven days in advance — a marked improvement from the current system, in which visitors are let in on a first-come, first-served basis and often must line up to wait their turn.

“We know these visits are important for the inmates as well as their families, and this change will allow OCCC to hold visitation with less strain on staff and more oversight and control,” Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, said in a statement.

But there are some trade-offs for OCCC inmates.

Halawa prison visitor area on tour of prison. 17 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
In June 2014, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety changed a visitation policy at the Halawa Correctional Facility to prohibit contact visit to root out contraband. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For one thing, the visits will last only for 30 minutes, instead of 45 minutes under the current system.

And no contact will be allowed during the visits, which will have to be conducted inside one of the five glass-separated rooms now reserved only for those who are in segregated housing.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says that, all in all, the department is moving backwards.

“I’m really concerned that they have this veneer of, ‘Oh, look at us, we’re going to have visitations seven days a week,’ but in reality they are hurting the families by separating them further,” Brady said. “To me, an agency that purports to support re-entry should be doing things that promote re-entry. Instead, they are doing things that make people more and more angry. How good is that for public safety?”

But Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, says switching to the noncontact visits is a win for everybody, as it “creates a safer environment for staff, inmates and visitors by blocking a primary contraband pathway.”

Schwartz couldn’t provide any details of the contraband problem Thursday, but it’s “a problem that prisons and jails across the country face, and many are moving to this type of visitation program,” she said.

In June 2014, the department implemented a similar policy at the Halawa Correctional Facility, allowing only noncontact visits. Schwartz said contraband introduction through visits was eliminated.

“That’s the goal with this change at OCCC,” she said.

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