Geography and punishment – Distance and prison visiting

In a piece in the UK Guardian newspaper 28/3/12, Sadhbh Walshe questions the commitment of the US prison system to maintaining family connections for incarcerated individuals. She highlights the importance of the geographical location of prisons:

“Maintaining contact with an incarcerated parent is challenging, to say the least, and certainly not something that the state or federal authorities seem to think is a priority. If they did, they surely would not have more than half the prison population in institutions that are between 100 and 500 miles from inmates’ actual homes, and some over 500 miles from home, making visits next to impossible for struggling families. This distance factor alone goes a long way to explaining why, as of 2004, 58.5% of inmates in state prison and 44.7% of inmates in federal prison had never received a visit from their kids. If a child in Philadelphia wants to see their mother in the women’s prison that is an eight-hour drive away on the other side of the state, they have to be up at 1am to board a special charter bus to take them there.”

The problems which arise in terms of distance and visitation, i.e. that the further from home a prisoner is, the less likely they are to be visited, has been widely observed, and is highlighted in some recent academic research, for example in Laura Piacentini et al’s paper looking at the incarceration experience of young girls in Russia’s prison system. Matt Mitchelson‘s recent work also finds that in the US state of Georgia, the distance between prisoners and their homes is considerable.

Visitation matters, not only for the wellbeing of prisoners and their families, and to mitigate against the negative effects of incarceration on both prisoners and their families, but also because  prisoners visited during their sentences tend to be less likely to reoffend on release. Since tackling reoffending is a cornerstone of US and UK criminal justice policy (for example, see the UK government’s ‘Breaking the Cycle’ policy document, the issue of distance would seem to be a critical one.

Read the full Guardian piece, which considers the effects on children of the incarceration of parents, here.