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Family visits make prisoners less likely to reoffend. But some states make visiting hard.

If people want to help friends and family members in prison, one of the best things they can do is simply pay a visit, since studies show that inmates who get more visitors are less likely to reoffend once they get out.

But a new analysis of federal data from the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice think tank, suggests that prison visits are very rare: Only about 31 percent of inmates in state prisons reported a personal visit in the previous month, and 70 percent had a phone call in the previous week.

This is a big problem for anyone interested in reducing prison reentry — and cutting down on mass incarceration. A study from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that a single visit correlated with a 25 percent drop in technical violations and a 13 percent drop in new crimes once the inmate got out of prison. Another study from the Ohio Department of Corrections found a negative correlation between visitations and prison infractions. (One caveat: Inmates with visitors might just have stronger social networks, which can help them reintegrate into society more easily. So it's not just the visits contributing to the drop.)

Still, states could do more to make visits easier and even encourage them. But the Prison Policy Initiative report found states often do the opposite, making it harder and even humiliating for people to visit their friends and family in prison — potentially at the risk of public safety.

Restrictions on visitations could hurt public safety

Prisons are surprisingly important to plumbing improvements. Shutterstock

All states don't follow a single model for family visitations, instead adopting a huge variety in approaches, the Prison Policy Initiative explained:

As a comprehensive 50-state study on prison visitation policies found, the only constant in prison rules between states is their differences. North Carolina allows just one visit per week for no more than two hours while New York allows those in maximum security 365 days of visiting. Arkansas and Kentucky require prospective visitors to provide their social security numbers, and Arizona charges visitors a one-time $25 background check fee in order to visit. And some rules are inherently subjective such as Washington State's ban on "excessive emotion," leaving families' visiting experience to the whims of individual officers.

So each state will need to adapt its own set of reforms to make visitations easier. They could take steps to make visits less humiliating — California, for example, deploys strip and dog searches against some visitors. Prisons could also aid families who want to visit but perhaps can't afford it — by, for example, providing video visitations as a supplement to in-person visits, or free transportation. Or, quite simply, states could expand visitation hours under certain circumstances and place inmates in facilities as close to home as possible.

One idea that's particularly timely is for prisons to cooperate, implement, and perhaps go beyond the Federal Communication Commission's upcoming regulations to cut the high cost of prison phone calls. That way, inmates could reach out to family members more easily to set up a visit, or at least have some contact when a visit isn't possible.

Part of the visitation problem is also caused by mass incarceration itself. As states have struggled with overcrowding in their facilities, they've been more likely to turn to remote or out-of-state prisons to house inmates. But these far-off locations make it much more difficult for friends and family to reach inmates. So as states continue to cut their prison populations, they could consider relying less on remote and out-of-state facilities, and put more offenders in alternatives to prison, such as parole or home arrest, to avoid shipping them off to faraway places.

Now, these changes likely wouldn't help all inmates. The Minnesota study suggested that relaxed policies wouldn't significantly increase visits among completely unvisited inmates, which by and large simply lack social networks. But the research shows that simply increasing visits for prisoners who already get visitors, just not very frequently, could help cut down on the recidivism rate.

Some people may scoff at these ideas — under the view that criminals shouldn't have an easy time seeing their friends and families. Many people believe, after all, that prisoners are supposed to be punished for their crimes. How does making it easier for family and friends to visit punish these inmates?

But that would be shortsighted. The point of the criminal justice system is to keep us safe, and taking research-backed steps to prevent inmates from reoffending achieves that goal.

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