Prison Policies Block Families from Nurturing Ties with Loved Ones in Prison
In the Second Chance Act of 2007, Congress found that although close family ties represent one of the most effective resources to help offenders in prison transition to society successfully upon release, prison administrators under utilize the resource of families. As a long-term prisoner, I know that Congress missed the point. Administrators not only fail to underutilize families as a resource, they support prison policies and a culture that erects obstacles to block rather than help offenders nurture family ties.
We need prison reforms that will facilitate efforts by prisoners to nurture family and community ties.
One recent example concerns my young friend, Jeff, who serves time with me inside a minimum-security federal prison camp. Jeff is in his late 20s. He is three years into a prison term that will keep him incarcerated for seven more years. Jeff is the father of two children, Brandon and Priscilla. When Jeff began serving his sentence, he was not married to Gabriella, the children’s mother. Gabriella, however, stood committed to strengthening her family with Jeff. She wanted to marry him.
Prison administrators did not support the idea. He submitted his request through his counselor. The counselor then passed Jeff’s request on to the camp administrator. The camp administrator determined that with seven years remaining to serve on his sentence, Jeff had too much time ahead of him to marry. Administrators abused their discretion by denying Jeff permission to marry. Jeff felt discouraged by the news. As a man who lacked knowledge of the legal system, he did not know how to respond.
I heard about Jeff’s problem and offered to help. Although Jeff was unaware, I knew that the U.S. Supreme Court had made rulings that supported a prisoner’s constitutional right to marry. Jeff did not need permission from a camp administrator. As an American citizen, he retained the right to marry. The Supreme Court had found that inmate marriages were expressions of emotional support and public commitment. In addition, many religions recognized that marriages have spiritual significance. Finally, marital status was a precondition to the receipt of several government benefits, including property rights, and legitimization of children born out of wedlock. Thus, the Supreme Court held that inmates have a constitutionally protected right to marry.
We need prison reforms that erase a culture of confinement that blocks and obstructs family ties. When I began helping Jeff with administrative remedy filings to challenge the camp administrator’s abuse of authority, the administrators relented. After I helped Jeff file a series of objections to advance his argument, the staff granted Jeff permission to marry. Still, they did not make it easy. The chaplain at the prison, the counselor at the prison, and the case manager at the prison all tried to influence him. They wanted to convince Jeff that he was making a bad decision. With so much time to serve, they told him that his marriage was unlikely to last and that a marriage would only make his time more difficult. The chaplain chose not to assist Jeff. He instead instructed him to find a member of the clergy or justice of the peace from the local community to perform the ceremony. Only through continued administrative objections could Jeff obtain the chaplain’s cooperation in performing the wedding ceremony.
Jeff’s persistence enabled him to overcome the obstacles wrought by prison administrators to his marriage, though only prison reforms could help him nurture family ties. Policies introduced under President Bush’s misguided administration restrict federal prisoners from talking on the telephone for more than an average of ten minutes per day. Such unnecessary limitations require Jeff to choose between talking with his wife, his son, his daughter, and members of his extended family. The constraints preclude him from using his precious allotment of monthly phone minutes to build bridges to society by talking with friends and mentors.
With Jeff’s schedule of seven more years to serve, prison rules exacerbate the struggle for Gabriella. She is left to rear her children without the presence of Jeff in their home. Their children suffer. Meanwhile, as Jeff grinds his way through more than 2,500 additional days of confinement, existing prison policies will alienate him further from family and community.
We need prison reforms that will encourage prisoners to earn graduated increases in freedom. As a start, such reforms ought to allow prisoners to earn additional access to telephone time so they can nurture ties with family and community. Such prison reforms will facilitate offenders who strive to build networks of support that will help them transition into society as law abiding citizens. Prison reforms will lower recidivism rates and thus make society safer.
We need prison reforms now.