Chapter 4: Visiting in a State or Federal Prison
If you visited your loved one after he was first arrested, you probably visited him in a city or county jail. If he has since been transferred to a state or federal prison, you will need to obtain new visiting privileges, but you will at least be familiar with visitation procedures. You will find, however, that your application for visitation in the state or federal prison system is much more demanding than it was for jail visitation. To supplement this chapter, you may want to read through the visitation requirements posted on the website of the state or federal prison to which your loved one has been transferred.
On the other hand, you may be planning a visit to a state or federal prison without having previously visited a city or county jail. Perhaps there has been reconciliation through correspondence so that, even though you did not visit your loved one during his initial incarceration, you are willing to do so now. Or, possibly you are expecting this to be a final visit and confrontation with him before a divorce or separation is finalized. Both of these reasons for a visit will be addressed at the end of this chapter.
Another reason for a first-time visit to a state or federal prison could be your new acquaintance with an inmate through a pen pal website promoting correspondence and visits with inmates. If this is your reason for arranging your first visit in a prison, immediately read Chapter 6: Please Be Careful.
A difference between jail and prison
No two states are alike, and each state administers their respective facilities individually. However, within the prison systems, state and federal prisons usually have many of the same visiting requirements. From the perspective of the visitor, the greatest difference between a visit to a jail and a visit to a prison will probably have to do with security. Because the jail typically has shorter inmate stays, security is arranged so that visitors can be granted visiting privileges quickly. However, the visitor and the jail inmate are almost always prevented from having any physical contact with each other. In lower security prisons, in contrast, the visitor and the inmate are usually seated together at a table (low-security) or chairs (medium-security) while facing each other. Most facilities permit a hug and kiss at the beginning and end of the visit, and some will permit handholding during the visit.
During the visit in low-security prisons, most facilities require the inmate to remain seated during the main part of the visit. On the other hand, the visitor is often permitted to carry in coins for use in vending machines in the visiting area. The visitor may purchase soft drinks and snack food for any of the visitors in his or her party and share them with the inmate.
Because visitors are actually inside the living area of the prison, the potential visitor must be much more carefully screened before visitation permission is granted. In addition, before each visit, the visitor must pass through a more stringent security checkpoint.
1. Make contact with the inmate you will eventually visit.
Your first step in securing visiting privileges will be to make contact with your loved one since he is the one who will initiate the visitation process. You could do this by letter, or he could make contact with you by phone. If, on the other hand, you can initiate the process through the internet as suggested in the next paragraph, you may be able to initiate this first step yourself.
2. Complete the visitation application and return it for processing.
You will need to supply a significant amount of information in order to complete a Visiting Application for a state or federal prison. (See an example of a Visiting Application in the next chapter.) This is actually the inmate's application since he is the one who will be placing your name on his list. In practice, however, the inmate will send a Visiting Application form to you. In some states you can complete and submit a the Visiting Application on the internet. After you have completed the form, either you or the jurisdiction processing the form will send it to the inmate for his signature. If your state permits you to do so, initiating the Visiting Application yourself is usually the fastest way to obtain visiting privileges. The following are the two procedures for gaining this permission:
3. Determine the actual visiting hours and other visitation requirements.
Once you know the name of the prison, you can go online to determine visiting hours and other visitation-related information. You can obtain this information quickly by using the website page Department of Corrections' websites by states on our website. Use the table to access your state's DOC. If you are not using the internet, you can use the telephone. The menu will almost always enable you to determine visiting hours and the facility address. Visitation requirements will vary between state and federal prisons. See Chapter 5: Visiting in a State or Federal Prison-Supplement for greater detail compiled from several different states' websites. Visitation requirements will undoubtedly include at least the following:
Identification requirements. Photo identification is always required. A photo driver's license or Department of Motor Vehicles issued photo ID card is usually sufficient. If you do not have either of these for yourself or your children, you will need to call the facility to determine what they will accept.
Dress requirements. The prison website will certainly give you dress requirements for entering the prison visiting area. Some dress codes will apply to almost all prisons. You cannot wear blue denim jeans. Skirts or shorts cannot be more than 2 inches above the knees. No midriff skin may show. You cannot wear a street coat into the visiting area (coat racks are usually provided in the reception area). You must pass through a metal detector, which would eliminate wearing most metal jewelry. (Metal rings or small pieces of body jewelry do not usually trip the metal detector.) Consequently, you should not wear anything (belts, etc.) with metal studs or decorations.
Carried items. You cannot carry anything into the visiting area other than a wrist watch, your personal identification, a locker key, and a clear plastic bag (or clear plastic coin purse) containing coins. A handkerchief is permitted. You cannot carry books, a pen or pencil, or paper into the visiting area. Most facilities will place a dollar limit (ten dollars is typical) on the amount of change you may carry in for vending machines. (In most facilities it is strictly forbidden to give an inmate anything-including money-during the visit. You may, however, buy food items for the inmate from a vending machine.) Pay lockers are usually provided in the reception area where you can leave purses, wallets, car keys, a folded coat, and the like. Hats and cameras are never allowed in the visiting area. If you drive your car to the visit, you can leave the things you cannot carry into the visiting area in your locked car in the parking lot. You can then lock your car keys in the pay locker. Be sure to carry some change with you so that you can open your pay locker if you need to. Some lockers refund the quarter when they are opened, but others do not.)
Some things for the visit are provided inside the visiting area by the facility. Many prisons will have a roll-around locking cart with games (card and board games, and sometimes children's games) which can be used during the visit. Since many games require scorekeeping, paper and pencils are often provided. Some facilities will have Bibles in the cart as well. The paper and pencils in the cart can be used to take notes for further reference after you leave the prison. However, always ask an officer first if it is permissible to carry notes out of the visiting area. If it is permitted, you can write notes to help you remember important topics of conversation.
Special needs. Each prison will have its own requirements regarding special medical apparatus or supplies such as asthma inhalers or glucose (sugar) for diabetics. Some may permit them inside the visitation area. Most, however, would probably allow you to put them in a locker in the reception area so that you could get them in case of an emergency. If a diabetic needs emergency glucose (sugar), candy from the vending machine inside of the visiting area is by far the easiest solution. If a visitor is wheelchair-dependent, many facilities will provide their own wheelchairs for use during the visit.
4. Determine the prison's location and its accessibility by public transportation.
The prison's street address is always available from either a website or by telephone. Parking is almost always provided for those arriving by car. If you live in a larger metropolitan area, bus transportation is usually available during visiting hours. If you are depending on public transportation, plan your trip using currently posted bus schedules, noting weekend schedules if that is the time you will be visiting.
5. Determine shortly before leaving home whether or not the visit will be allowed.
Be sure that you are already on your loved one's visitor list before you plan to visit. If either the prison or the inmate himself are under any disciplinary action, visits will not be allowed. Especially if you are driving a long distance for your first visit, it may be wise to call the prison the day before your planned visit and verify that the visit will be permitted.
1. A public reception area.
Each prison will be unique. If you enter the main prison administrative building directly from the parking lot without going through a locked security gate, you would then enter the visitors' reception area through security gates inside the building itself. Typically, however, you will enter the actual prison yard through a double security gate and then proceed to the visitor reception area. The reception area will have seating, coat racks, and lockers for personal items you cannot carry into the visiting area. The inmates themselves can never enter the visitor reception area.
2. A sign-in desk.
When you enter the reception area, go directly to the sign-in desk. You may need to get in a waiting line. This is where you will register for the visit by stating the name of the inmate you wish to visit and showing your personal photo ID. You may also be asked to enter your city and state of residence (but not your street address) as well as your relationship to the person you are visiting. The officer at the sign-in desk will verify that your name is on the inmate's visitor list. If everything is in order, and if he has not had his quota of visits for that day, you will be permitted to visit. You will also be assigned a visiting table number. The inmate will then be told that he has a visitor.
After you have signed in, you can hang your coat on the coat rack, place your extra items in a pay locker, and use a restroom before lining up to go through the metal detector. The reception area may have a bill-changing machine if you need coins for the vending machines inside. (Note, however, that change machines may fail. The best plan is to come with your own supply of quarters.)
3. Public restrooms.
You will usually find public restrooms in the reception area. Restrooms will likely have an infant changing table. Because visiting times in a prison can sometimes be two hours or longer, some prisons may also have locked restroom facilities in the visiting area itself that must be opened by an officer. In other prisons, leaving the visiting area to use a restroom in the reception area would terminate your visit. You can call the facility in advance to ask about the availability of restrooms if it is a concern to you.
4. People who have adjusted well to visitation life.
A prison reception area seems to be calmer than a jail reception area. By and large, the visitors in the jail reception area are new to jail visitation, sometimes resulting in a higher level of stress. In a low-security prison reception area, most of the visitors are women, but there will also be more older children and inmates' parents. There is often more camaraderie between visitors. Acts of kindness and concern for others may be evident in a jail reception area, but they may be even more apparent in the prison reception area. If you will be a first-time visitor in a prison, you will actually have less to be apprehensive about.
5. A check-in area with a metal detector.
You will pass through a metal detector as you go from the public reception area to the visiting area. The metal detectors are set at a high level of sensitivity and will detect even the smallest metal parts. Sometimes even the brass eyelets on shoes will trip them. You could throw your shoes through to the other side and then walk through, but it is easiest if you wear clothing and shoes which are free of metal.
In some prisons, you may also be asked to submit to an itemizer or ion scan search. The visitor is given a towelette and then asked to wipe it over their shirt front, pockets and palms of their hands. The towelette is then placed directly into a machine that detects any traces of narcotics or explosives. The ion scan machine emits a puff of air onto the visitor and analyzes it for traces of narcotics or explosives. None of these procedures are painful, invasive, or harmful.
1. You will need personal identification.
You will always need personal identification when you sign in. A driver's license or other equivalent ID is the most common form of identification. Since you will be able to carry your ID into the visiting area in your pocket, you may want to securely lock your other belongings in your car or locker.
2. You will need to be on the inmate's visitor list.
Your name will be checked against a computer record of visitors allowed for the inmate you want to visit. The computer record will also indicate the absence of disciplinary action which would prevent the visit.
3. You will need to observe every prison's "unwritten rule."For the most part, inmates do not want other inmates to know what crimes they committed. This is particularly true of offenses which other inmates hold in contempt, such as sex crimes or crimes against children. An inmate who was formerly employed in a justice system is particularly hated. An inmate known to have committed some of these crimes is often targeted and may be severely beaten (or extorted) by fellow inmates. Common sense dictates that you not discuss your loved one's crime, and that you try not to listen in on others' conversations in the reception area. You might wish that you could talk to another visitor who you think might be sympathetic to your loved one's incarceration, but it is not a good practice. This visitor could innocently pass that information on to another inmate, creating a dangerous situation. For the same reason, you should be discreet in discussing details of your loved one's crime with even him during the visit. A private conversation overheard from your table could result in serious repercussions for him.
4. Both male and female officers will be present.
At least one female officer is generally present at a metal detector checkpoint, and will move a woman visitor to a private area if discreet scanning with a wand is necessary. These same female officers are also available if a visitor needs female hygiene items, or if other confidential information must be shared.
5. If necessary, personal checks will be done with dignity.
Be assured that the officers in charge of the checkpoint area will be as discreet as possible.
6. Your visit will be determined by available space.
Try to be early for your visit since the number of visitors is limited to available spaces in the visiting area. As a matter of fairness, however, many prisons will have some form of visitation point system in which each visit-hour will be given a point. If an inmate accumulates high points because he has frequent visitors, his visit can be terminated to clear a table for an inmate with fewer points. When necessary, most prison visitation officers will announce the need for voluntary termination of visits before visitors of some high-point inmates are asked to leave. Visitors who must travel a long distance for the visit are given special consideration. The system seems to work fairly for all. If you arrive after the visitation area is full, you may be asked to wait for an hour or less at which time a place will be cleared for your visit. Some days, however, are not controlled by the point system. Friday is often a particularly busy visitation day. In this case, the two-and-a-half-hour visitation period may be divided into two sessions in order to accommodate a higher number of visitors. If you must travel a long distance for the visit, always call the facility in advance for complete information. Also, call just before leaving to be certain that the inmate will be able to visit with you.
We always encourage reconciliation. Whenever possible, true reconciliation within the family is the foundation on which the most successful transition back into the community can be made. We are delighted for you as both individuals and as a family when the first steps of reconciliation have been taken. But be cautious. Prison rules are very strict regarding disruptive behavior during visitation. A heated argument would almost certainly terminate a visit. If you are in the process of reconciliation, be very careful that you avoid discussions which will produce sharp disagreement during the visit. Agree in advance to avoid certain topics. Continue to work out the difficult details through correspondence, and use your visitation time to build bridges to full restoration.
If you are able to initiate visits with your loved one after he is already in prison, and you can succeed in restoring your relationship, we commend you for the success.
A final visit
The visiting area is not the place for a heated confrontation before a final break-up. If you are planning a visit to reprimand or embarrass your estranged loved one, find another way to accomplish that apart from a visit. However, before you do anything else, we suggest that you read our short book Renewed Hope.
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