Unless you are an attorney, it requires a great deal of effort and some organization to visit someone in prison. You have to want it. There are forms to be signed and sent in, and a background check that must be done on each possible visitor.
Every inmate at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia has one specified day a week for visits, which is almost always a workday. When they arrive, visitors must wait to enter (often for significant periods of time), lock up all their property before going in (this includes phones and watchs) and go through a search that ranges from airport level (shoes off, pass through the medical detector) to strip search.
The visits themselves occur in one large room with no privacy, under video and officer surveillance. There is a vending machine in the corner where kids buy old candy and bathrooms that are usually out of toilet paper. The room is depressing and loud and uncomfortable and smells of cheap disinfectant.
This past July, the Federal Detention Center instituted a policy that makes inmate visits even more difficult: It limited visits to immediate family only. This is part of a larger trend in federal pretrial facilities around the country to control and limit visitation; federal detention centers in Houston and San Diego have similar policies.
These facilities want to limit numbers in the visiting room to keep out contraband and to make their job of maintaining orderly visiting periods easier. But the results have been devastating: Practically speaking, the policy cuts off inmates from the people they love at precisely the moment they need those connections most.
How the “immediate family only” policy effectively prohibits inmates from seeing their kids
I am a criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia. Most of my clients are charged under federal indictment. Most are poor. Most are held, pretrial, at the Federal Detention Center because federal defendants charged with drug trafficking are presumed, under the law, to be dangerous and at risk of flight and therefore are rarely granted release pending trial.
The response to the new policy from the inmates was near universal outrage. My clients were so upset, I was surprised that you could not hear them howling from the sidewalk in downtown Philadelphia, where the jail resides, hidden in plain sight.
Here’s why they’re so angry: “Immediate family,” as defined by Bureau of Prison regulations, includes parents, children, spouses, and siblings. But none of my clients are married. So the practical impact of the policy for most of my clients is that they cannot see their romantic partners and their children. The children are allowed in, but they must be accompanied by an adult until they are 16. With their mothers excluded, there is no one to bring the kids to see their fathers.
It is therefore not surprising that many of my clients now have no visitors at all. Many cannot find family members to volunteer to bring in their children when their longtime girlfriends are turned away.
In speaking to prison officials since the implementation of the policy, what is most clear is that they, and the policy they are tasked with enforcing, are out of step with the lives of the inmates I represent. Most of my clients are in long-term relationships with women who have mothered at least one of their children, but marriage is very uncommon. Many of my clients were raised by their grandmothers or other extended family. Some are products of the foster system. The FDC is trying to implement Leave It to Beaver family rules on a group of men (and a few women) who live in a completely different world.
Marriage rates have gone down for everyone in the past 40 years, but nowhere is the change more striking than with poor men. In the 1970s, the vast majority of men were married, regardless of their income. Men between 30 and 50 in the bottom quartile of earners have seen a decline in the rate of marriage from 86 percent to 50 percent.
I have been doing this work for nearly 10 years, and I cannot think of a single indigent client I have represented who is married. (The same is not true for those clients who have privately retained me.) The facilities that limit visitation to “immediate family” are out of step with the world that most criminal defendants live in.
When the policy first went into effect, I called the FDC on behalf of one of my clients — a man with a 9-year-old son. I was told initially that exceptions might be made on a “case by case basis,” if an inmate had “written proof” that he had no immediate family whatsoever. Speaking to the client’s unit manager, I explained that he was an only child who had no father and his mother could not come see him because she had been diagnosed with emphysema and did not go out.
Who, then, could bring my client’s son, since the child’s mother and my client’s longtime girlfriend could not come in because they had never married? I could prove the mother’s diagnosis and the disability. Would this be adequate? The doctor’s note would have to specify that the mother could not leave the house for any reason: Disability alone was not enough.
Was my client’s father listed on his birth certificate? I was asked. I did not know, I told him honestly, but I suspected that a man’s name was on his birth certificate, though he had failed to play any role in my client’s life. Well, maybe it was time for my client to reach out to his father, the unit manager suggested. They could reestablish a tie and then the father might bring the child to visit. There was not even a hint of irony in his voice.
In the alternative, the cheerful bureaucrat informed me, I could furnish the father’s death certificate. “We want your client to see his kid,” the unit manager insisted. “But he’s gotta do some work to make it happen.”
We can expect more restrictive prison policies under Trump’s chosen attorney general
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ statement on visiting, “The Bureau of Prisons encourages visiting by family, friends and community groups to maintain the morale of the inmate and family members.” This policy is not just a matter of benevolence: Studies show that inmates who receive regular visits during their incarceration are less likely to commit violent crimes when they are released.
With the election of Donald Trump and his nomination of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, we can only expect these policies to become more draconian. Trump, who ran on a “law and order” platform with no expression of interest in prisoner rehabilitation, seemed to have a tin ear for the concerns of the urban poor. Sessions has opposed all types of criminal justice reform, including the rolling back of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, which has bipartisan support in Congress.
Having gotten nowhere with the FDC bureaucrats on behalf of my client with the 9-year-old son, the client and I decided to go in a different direction: If you can’t beat them, join them. On a windy Monday morning in November, I met a man from the Philadelphia Marriage License Office in a federal building, a block from the FDC. The federal marshals had brought my client in to meet with FBI agents and prosecutors, but we used the prescheduled meeting for another purpose as well: My client signed a marriage license, thereby preparing to pledge his troth, such as it was, to his longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend, who was also the mother of his son.
While Shakespeare has primed us to believe that a story that ends with a marriage is a happy one, I did not feel happy. I am not sure that these two people should be getting married. Does it really make sense for this couple to take this step when my client is likely to spend the next several years locked away? What is the likelihood that this relationship, not rock solid in the best of times and about to undergo years of physical separation, will succeed? Should we be asking these two people to make this all-important choice to bind themselves together under the law just so they can share a few minutes in a crowded, surveilled room with their young son?
I blinked away these questions as I watched my client, a sober groom-to-be, sign on the line. “When we get the license, will you come to the ceremony and be our witness?” my client asked me.
“I would be honored,” I told him.
Dana Bazelon is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in Philadelphia. She represents individuals charged with a host of different crimes, from wire fraud to attempted murder. She also sues the police and prisons on behalf of clients who have been mistreated.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at email@example.com.