A period of incarceration can be confusing and scary for a person. It’s hard to maintain a positive outlook when ordinary life is stripped away. Receiving photos and staying connected with the outside world can make all the difference for your loved one’s mental health. This applies both while they’re inside and when they return home. Unfortunately, recent facility policies such as photocopying and reduced visitation can make it harder for friends and family to maintain that connection with our incarcerated loved ones. Read on to learn more about these policies, what you can do to help, and some exciting news from two states who are making prison communication much easier in 2023.
The Fight for REAL Photos Continues
When we speak to incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people, the “tangible connection” that comes with holding a physical photo or handwritten letter is often mentioned. According to incarcerated writer Ryan M. Moser, “We treasure mementos like physical cards, letters and photos in prison because we have little else.” As we’ve previously discussed on our blog, facilities across the country are opting to replace original mail with scanned photocopies or even banning physical mail completely. In an effort to prevent contraband, more and more facilities are requiring that friends and family send all letters, photos, and cards to a designated central processing facility. Instead of receiving the original letter or photo, incarcerated people receive a photocopy or digital copy accessible on a tablet. Mail digitization comes with additional fees that add to the financial burdens shouldered by families with incarcerated loved ones.
Staffing Shortages are Impacting Visitation
Visitation was particularly difficult for friends and families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some facilities reduced or suspended visitation hours, which meant some families went years without being able to visit their loved one. Unfortunately, this trend is continuing in some states due to higher-than-normal staffing shortages. Montana, for example, began suspending all in-person visitation indefinitely on October 31, 2021 due to staffing challenges. Meanwhile, some facilities have not resumed visitation since the pandemic began, switching completely to video visitation.
Clinique Chapman, associate director of VERA & MILPA’s Restoring Promise initiative, said “Video visits and phone calls are not a substitute for in-person connection. The power of hugs, touch, and holding your children are aspects of humanity that not only benefit the incarcerated person and their family members but also the culture and safety of the prison.” Studies have shown that incarcerated people who received visitors were less likely to return to prison after their release. Research has also found that visitation is linked to better mental health, including reduced symptoms of depression.
Positive Changes are Happening: California & Connecticut Make Phone Calls from Prison FREE
California took a major step forward to keep families experiencing incarceration connected. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill in September 2022 that makes phone calls from California’s prisons free of charge. The new law places the cost of calls state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation rather than families.
Now, with the governor’s blessing, “the simple cost of a call is never going to impair their ability to tell their children they love them or help their partner problem-solve a parenting situation,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a prison reform organization that advocated for the bill. This exciting change in California follows Connecticut, who was the first state to make all phone calls for people in state prisons free with a new law passed in June 2021.
Advocates believe that these changes to prison communication will improve both reentry outcomes and general mental health. “To me, being able to maintain relationships with people was really priceless, and certainly served me well once I was able to come home because I didn’t feel like I was being dropped into a world that I had not been a part of for many years,” said Gus Marks-Hamilton, campaign manager for ACLU-CT who spent eight years in prison.
Studies have shown that incarcerated people who received visitors were less likely to return to prison after their release. A 2014 study of incarcerated women found that those who had any phone contact with a family member were less likely to be reincarcerated. Phone communication in prison was even proven to have a more powerful effect on recidivism compared to visitation.
How Can Friends and Families Help?
If someone you love is incarcerated, you can advocate for positive changes in your own community, city, or state. Visit National Write Your Congressman’s website to identify your state’s legislators and write in your concerns about prison communication policies. You can also inspire others- use your platforms to get others to voice their concerns as well. If you’re not sure where to start, that’s okay. Research both local and national issues, and make sure to look for verifiable information from trusted sources.
If you know of a facility that is photocopying photos, please contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This will allow our Correctional Facility Relations Department to contact the facility and provide solutions like our photobooks. We are here to advocate for you and help get REAL photos into your loved one’s hands.
Keeping families connected is at the heart of everything we do at Pelipost. In the words of our CEO Joseph Calderon, “We started Pelipost because we understand how much these photos mean to someone on the inside. That’s why we will do all we can to make this process accessible to everyone.”