Bill would make it easier for people to visit loved ones in prison

By Nidavirani (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By Noor Adatia
BU News Service

BOSTON — Nia Reid-Patterson had tears in her eyes explaining why her 8-year-old son no longer wants to visit his father in jail.

“He loves his father and it has nothing to do with his father, but it’s just the treatment we have to go through when we’re constantly trying to come see him,” she said, sobbing.

Reid-Patterson, who has been visiting her husband in jail for eight years now, said she has been “disrespected, humiliated and treated as if [she] was a criminal” by the guards.

Relatives of incarcerated individuals like Reid-Patterson of Dorchester provided stories of their own mistreatment in prisons at a briefing by legislators in the State House this week, voicing their support for a bill that would improve jail visitation policies.

During one visit that left her young son upset, she said she had to lift up her shirt over her bra and shake the bottom of it. When she later questioned the officers about the check, she was immediately banned for 30 days from visiting her husband.

“We’re trying to make our families strong and our connection strong, but they keep breaking it down,” she told state lawmakers.

The passage of the criminal justice bill last year marked the single most comprehensive piece of legislation related to the incarcerated — most notably mandating more humane treatment of prisoners.

However, the Massachusetts Department of Correction has not fully complied with these provisions and have enacted their own regulations in prisons, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, said.

Sabadosa said she co-sponsored the legislation because of the DOC’s actions. The aim of the House bill is to loosen these restrictions, including removing limitations on the number of unique visitors and preventing officers from turning people away on the basis of their clothes.

“It feels wrong when you have the Legislature asking a body to do one thing, and then that group does something different,” she said.

Reid-Patterson also explained how her husband, like other prisoners, has to make difficult decisions about who he wants to see due to the limit on the number of visitors. He recently had to remove his sister from his pre-approved list in order to see his brother.

“People shouldn’t have to make decisions like that about who they want to see and which family and loved ones they want to interact with on a daily basis,” she said.

Bonnie Tenneriello, who also testified at the event, works as an attorney at Prisoners Legal Services Massachusetts which advocates for better treatment of inmates.

Tenneriello said in an interview that family contact is essential for inmates who often get lonely when in prison and require more emotional support.

“It’s key to the welfare of … their future health and safety,” she said. “Family contacts are key to the ability of prisoners to return to succeed when they return to their communities.”

In fact, there is a strong relationship between family visitation and reduced rates of recidivism, Tenneriello testified. In 2017, the DOC reported a three-year recidivism rate of 32% — a 12% decrease from 2012 — which it attributes to their prison reentry efforts.

“The current policies are so nonsensical,” Tenneriello said. “It’s so contrary to the idea of rehabilitation and re-entry.”

Sabadosa agreed with Tenneriello, noting that staying connected to the outside world can especially help those people who are paroled find jobs and secure housing upon release.

She said that her own visits to prison to meet with prisoners before she became a legislator were “dehumanizing,” and there were many ways in which they could deny her visit — such as by wearing earrings or even a bra with an underwire.

One of the critical factors in prison, she said, is preserving family and friend relationships that are so integral in everyday life.

“When we start talking about prisons, all of a sudden, the rules that we use in a society kind of get thrown out the window,” she said.

Sabadosa also said that her colleagues in the Legislature often forget that people in the state’s prisons are also their constituents.

“I wished every senator and representatives viewed every single incarcerated person as our collective constituency,” she said.

While the bill has not been through a hearing yet, she said she thinks it will advance soon. In the meantime, it is important for lawmakers to remain “vigilant about what correctional facilities in Massachusetts are doing.”

“My real hope is that we stop this belief that when people are incarcerated, it means they need to be cut off from the world.”

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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