Foster Connections with Loved Ones

Supporting Argument 14. Every correctional facility will comprehensively evaluate how well they foster relationships between incarcerated people and their loved ones.  All necessary changes will be made in each facility to make these connections a priority.

I am waiting outside the pat-down room in the Visitor’s Center at Stateville Correctional Center.  A grandma is there to visit her grandson.  As she and I are taken into the pat-down room to be cleared to enter the facility, she is told that her outfit is inappropriate and she will not be allowed to see her loved one today.  She has some holes in her jeans.  She protests, explaining that she had never heard that rule before, she has gone into the facility with these pants in the past, and she skipped work today to come see her grandbaby.  The Correctional Officer told her there was a Walmart about 20 minutes down the road. She could go buy a skirt to throw over her clothes.  She left.  I don’t know what ended up happening.  I don’t think anyone cares.

I am waiting outside the pat-down room in the Visitor’s Center at Stateville Correctional Center.  A young mom is holding the hand of her 7-year-old girl who is bouncing around excitedly.  Clearly she doesn’t get to see her dad very often.  The woman approaches the glass which she has to yell through so the correctional officer can hear her.  The officer lazily scrolls through something on her computer and a few minutes later explains that her name is not on the list.  She will not be allowed in today.  Tears well up in the woman’s eyes.  She knows her name is on the list – she was in last week.  It’s her daughter’s birthday and she kept her out of school today so she could spend time with her dad.  The officer repeats that her name is not on the list and she will not be allowed in today.  She was not allowed in.

I am waiting outside the pat-down room in the Visitor’s Center at Stateville Correctional Center.  Another woman is denied entry.  She’s black.  They’re always black.  She stands up for herself.  She knows that she is on that list.  She drove 4 hours this morning and paid for a hotel room tonight so that she could see her loved one.  She will see him.  It is her right.
Apparently not if the correctional officer has anything to say about it.  The officer states that her name is not on the list and she will not be allowed in until the inmate provides them with a list that has her name on it.

I am waiting outside the pat-down room in the Visitor’s Center at Stateville Correctional Center.  The line for getting in to see your loved one is out the door.  It can take them a full hour to get around to letting me enter the facility and I have permanent clearance, an established relationship with some of the officers who work at the visitor’s center and I always get priority entry before anyone else in the room.  Maybe a quarter of the people packed in here will get to see their loved ones today.

~ ~ ~

Prison is generally an unpleasant place, but the Visitor’s Center is by far my least favorite part. It feels like I walk out of the Visitor’s Center and into the prison completely devastated by something I have experienced in there every single week.  The blatant lack of concern for human beings is appalling.  The distaste that all of the correctional officers in Stateville categorically exude for their jobs certainly does not help.  There is a notable lack of consistency for what is allowed.  The system for letting visitors in is not widely understood by the men in Stateville. The time it takes to let people in is unacceptable.  The impossibility of knowing whether you will be rejected prior to spending money and hours trying to see your loved one is damaging and the prison ought to be held accountable for it. The lack of a method of recourse for visitors who are mistreated is intolerable.  I understand that the correctional officers are generally accustomed to treating people like animals, but they need to recognize that at least some of the people they interact with do have rights. The fact that visiting hours don’t extend beyond the school day, so kids have to be taken out of school MAKING IT EXPONTENTIALLY MORE LIKELY THAT THEY THEMSELVES WILL END UP DROPPING OUT OF SCHOOL AND INTO THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM just so they can spend time with their dads should actually be a punishable offense itself.  Whoever implemented that policy ought to be thrown in prison. And of course, there’s always the glaring reality that I am regularly the only white person in the visitor’s center.  Frankly, any of these would be legitimate motivations for overhauling the system for visiting in Stateville Correctional Center – but what all of these stories indisputably have in common is that the people who are trying to spend time with their incarcerated loved ones are kept from doing so.

This has repercussions far beyond each individual day and each denied visit.  Try to imagine maintaining a relationship with your family or friends while you are kept in a cage 22 hours a day.  You can write letters.  The expected turn-around time is 40 days when you allow for the time it takes the officers to screen the mail that enters and exits the facility.  You can make phone calls.  They cost money.  And if you have a job in prison, you are one of the lucky ones and you can expect to make $0.23/hour.  And you can ask them to come visit you.  You are allowed a total of 6 visits each month.  This is not 6 visits for your spouse and 6 visits for your kids and 6 visits for your friends.  This is 6 visits total.  They are between the hours of 8 and 2.  And only one can be on a weekend.  And whenever someone does come see you, they have just been felt up by a person with a badge that they probably rightfully detest and then were locked in a second room until the place was stuffed full enough with people that the officer thought taking a trip of people up to the main building was justified.

If you do not imagine that all of your relationships are significantly strained and that people don’t have plenty of reasons not to come visit you, then your imagination needs some work.  You are a financial burden on your family when you probably wish you could be a support.  Communicating with you causes even more financial burden.  To see you they have to take off work.  And then get violated.

If it is the ultimate goal of the department of corrections to safely release anyone back into society, then the visiting system demands a dramatic change immediately.  

The best way to break the cycle of crime is through the maintenance of meaningful relationships.  Every splinter that the IDOC shoves between incarcerated people and their loved ones is a deliberate act of violence against incarcerated people and their loved ones not only in that moment, but even more powerfully when they are released from prison.

There are 1,400 – 1,800 people who are currently residing in the IDOC because they don’t have anywhere to go.  They are officially released, but homeless.  So they stay in prison.  I don’t know how many of them may be welcomed into someone’s home if they had been able to maintain a meaningful relationship with someone while they were incarcerated, but even if it only added an option for a fraction of those people – or even just one – it would be a change worth pursuing.

I am actually disgusted by the IDOC’s flagrant disregard for the human need for meaningful relationships.  I believe it is impossible for a person to defend the visiting system the way it stands today.  I dare someone to try.

~Written by Katrina Burlet
Katrina has never been incarcerated but would gladly trade places in the prison system with any one of the men on the Stateville Debate Team.  She is confident that giving any one of them their freedom would make the world a better place.

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