Visitation, mail, phone, and other forms of contact between incarcerated people and their families have positive impacts for everyone — including better health, reduced recidivism, and improvement in school, Prison Policy Institute (PPI) reports. Yet prisons and jails are notorious for making such communication difficult or impossible. People are incarcerated far from home and visitation access is limited, phone calls are expensive and sometimes taken away as punishment, mail is censored and delayed, and video calls and emerging technologies are all too often used as an expensive replacement for in-person visits. Research over decades has linked more visitations to better adherence of prison rules, better mental health and reduced rates of reconviction.
In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that thirty percent of all prisoners had at least two prior incarcerations. A 1972 study on visitation that followed 843 people on parole from California prisons found that those who had no visitors during their incarceration were six times more likely to be reincarcerated than people with three or more visitors. In 2008, researchers found that among 7,000 people released from state prisons in Florida, each additional visit received during incarceration lowered the odds of two-year recidivism by almost four percent.
Consistent and frequent phone calls were linked to the lowest odds of returning to prison, so the loss of phone “privileges” as a punishment is both inhumane and counterproductive, PPI says. Mail is widely understood as a major lifeline for incarcerated people, with some literature finding that it’s the most common form of family contact. The fulfilling feeling of receiving personal mail, the ability to write and read mail at one’s own pace, and the relatively low cost of a letter mean that it’s a highly practical mode of communication, universal to people both inside and outside of prison. Yet many officials block or restrict mail, like former Maricopa County, Az. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who implemented a postcard-only policy that 14 other states adopted.
Most inmate advocates agree that video calling should only supplement in-person visitation, not replace it entirely. A 2014 survey found incarcerated people in Washington State were pleased when video calling allowed family to see them, but frustrated by the cost and significant technical challenges of the software. When in-person visits were banned at the jail in Knox County, Tn., in favor of video-only visitation, inmates lost the opportunity to maintain healthy social connections. As a result, assaults between prisoners and assaults on staff increased in the months after the ban on visits was implemented.
Family contact provides relief to the family of an incarcerated person. Simply having an incarcerated loved one indicates poorer health and a shorter lifespan. In particular, children, the “hidden victims” of incarceration, are at increased risk for mental health problems and substance use disorders, and face worse intellectual outcomes compared to children without an incarcerated family member. Supportive family relationships can promote psychological and physiological health for incarcerated people and their loved ones. Visitation can ease anxiety in children and mitigate some of the impacts on strained interpersonal relationships.