When families, friends and others visit loved ones at Oahu Community Correctional Center, they’re separated by an inches-thick plexiglass window. Squeezed into a tight cubby, they talk through a phone receiver over other visitors shouting to be heard, said Bree Forbes, whose husband spent a year there.
“It almost feels like he’s behind a screen,” she said. “Like we’re watching him on TV.”
Similar scenes unfold at Maui Community Correctional Center and Halawa Correctional Facility, where the state Department of Public Safety has banned contact visits to prevent contraband from being passed to inmates. All other state correctional facilities allow contact.
Contraband is defined as anything that’s not allowed by prison policy. OCCC Chief of Security Caesar Altares said during a media tour in November that the most common contraband seized by guards included drugs, cigarettes and cellphones.
Halawa prison, which is for inmates who have been sentenced, has banned contact visits since 2014, OCCC since October, 2016 and MCCC since June, 2019.
“Implementation of the non-contact visits resulted in the elimination of a major contraband pathway,” said spokeswoman Toni Schwartz.
Schwartz said the department could not disclose other contraband pathways for safety and security reasons. “Contraband is an ongoing battle for correctional facilities across the nation,” she added.
But the policy comes at a cost. Studies suggest that visits without contact have negative impacts on families, especially children, who may not understand why they cannot touch or be held by their parent.
On the flip side, studies have shown that contact visits reduce recidivism. Family bonds help ease the stresses associated with inmates reentering the community, making recidivism less likely. A Minnesota Department of Corrections study found that a single visit reduced recidivism by 13% for new crimes and 25% for technical violations.
“The findings suggest that revisiting prison visitation policies to make them more ‘visitor friendly’ could yield public safety benefits by helping offenders establish a continuum of social support from prison to the community,” the study found.
Many experts say that non-contact visitations make for a poor experience and can be traumatic for children, according to a study from the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based economic and social policy research center.
The limits on visits can take many different forms, said Lindsey Cramer, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute — such as the physical barriers of plexiglass and phone receivers found in Hawaii, but also limitation on time.
“Contact visits are preferable to non-contact visits because it does allow for that touch, that attachment,” Cramer said. “It puts the child more at ease. It reassures the child that the parent is safe, is okay.
“They might be able to read a story to their child, help with homework, to have a more fruitful conversation.”
Visiting her incarcerated husband has always been a challenge with her three children, who are now 4, 6 and 8, Forbes said.
At OCCC, she could only take one child at a time. Once her husband was sentenced and sent to Halawa, she could take two. Now that he’s been transferred to Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, they’ll be lucky if they can ever afford to go, she said.
The hardest part, Forbes said, is watching the kids’ relationships with their father diminish.
“My youngest would crawl up on the table and try to reach for his hand when he would put his hand up on the window,” she said. “And then she would cry when we would leave.”
The visitation areas are not friendly to families, she said. They aren’t allowed to bring anything, and small children are expected to sit and wait without any toys or other diversions.
There are ways to improve prison and jail visits, said Cramer of the Urban Institute. In other jurisdictions, jails partner with community-based nonprofits.
For instance, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, nonprofit staff pat down children to check for contraband instead of jail staff, making it less intimidating.
Another example is Harris County, Texas, where the jail system is training volunteers as “ambassadors” in the lobby of the facility to help families navigate the visitation system, Cramer said.
Prisons and jails could also host activities in the visitation rooms, such as worksheets, coloring books or providing the same book to both the incarcerated parent and children on the other side of the plexiglass, she said.
The physical environment could also be made more welcoming. In Harris County, they’ve started offering books and coloring sheets in the lobby for children.
However, at the end of the day, provided the families are ready, contact visits still are the best option, Cramer said.
In Hawaii, Stephen Morse and his group, Blueprint for Change Hawaii, have been working to create visitation centers for incarcerated parents and their children.
In 2015, his group began collecting data on how many children had incarcerated parents and found it averaged 3,000 to 4,000 each year.
Visitation can help children keep in touch with parents, but it should occur in the right setting, Morse said — and that doesn’t appear to be happening.
Last year, his group helped pass legislative resolutions to establish a working group that would explore ways to build family-friendly visitation centers at all the state’s correctional facilities.
“We can prevent children in the families from exhibiting delinquent behavior themselves and perhaps becoming incarcerated and continuing that cycle of incarceration,” he said.
Morse said the working group has met with the warden at Waiawa Correctional Facility, which allows contact visits. But eventually, he wants to get to places like Halawa, OCCC and MCCC, where contact visits are banned.
“The long-term vision would be to have these kinds of facilities in every state correctional facility,” he said. “But we have to start somewhere.”
Schwartz, the public safety spokeswoman, said “the maintenance of healthy relationships between inmates and family members while maintaining safe, secure and rehabilitative correctional environments is a delicate balance we always endeavor to achieve.
“To maintain healthy relationships, DPS provides regularly scheduled hours of visitation between offenders housed at these facilities, and friends and family members,” she added.
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