Advocates push prisons to stop using visitor restrictions to punish prisoners

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Monica Jahner became “the first person in Michigan to get life without parole on a conspiracy to murder where no one died” after being wrongfully convicted in 1978 at age 22, she said. 

“That was back in the day when the politicians were getting tough on crime,” Jahner said. “They decided that you should do the exact same amount of time whether you committed the crime or not.”

Jahner was paroled in 2007 after winning a court challenge to her sentence and served about 28 years, doing time in both the Florence Crane Women’s Correctional Facility in Coldwater and the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti. 

Today, she is the manager of the Advocacy, Reentry, Resource and Outreach division of the NorthWest initiative, based in Lansing, which helps formerly incarcerated people transition to the outside world.

But her advocacy started while she was an inmate, when she became angry at the indignities faced by mothers in prison who rarely saw their children, she said.

Prison reform advocates argue that restricting visits is often used as a punitive measure and can contribute to prisoners’ feelings of isolation. 

While behind bars, Jahner started a program that allowed children to be transported to the facility every Saturday for “quality visits” with their moms. 

“That visiting room was usually very dirty, and there’s nothing for kids to do,” Jahner said. “So we would get the people in Coldwater to donate pumpkins, lunch, gingerbread houses — we would do some stuff where the moms could really engage with their kids.”

She also commonly challenged prison leadership when inmates had their visiting rights stripped from them, she said. 

Maintaining strong family ties is critical for the rehabilitation and for the well-being of all incarcerated individuals and families,” Tiffany Walker, the family program director at Citizens for Prison Reform, said in a statement. 

“Unfortunately, current visitation policies and restrictions often create significant barriers for families, hindering positive outcomes,” Walker said.

According to a report from the Department of Corrections, 93% of visit restrictions in 2023 were imposed because of substance abuse violations. 

Kyle Kaminski, the public information officer at the department, said all visits — including virtual ones — can be restricted if a prisoner commits two separate Class 1 substance abuse violations within five years of each other. Class 1 substance abuse violations are defined as the possession, use or selling of any controlled substance or alcoholic beverage. 

For example, “it could be being found with an illicit substance, it could be failure to complete drug testing as ordered by staff, it could be misusing approved medications,” Kaminski said. 

“If somebody has a medication to take once per day but they’re stockpiling it in the hopes of either selling it or taking a large dosage to generate some kind of high, that type of misuse could result in the misconduct.”

In most such cases, visits are restricted for one year, and prisoners can apply to have their visits reinstated after that time, Kaminski said.

“In a lot of cases, the visits will be reinstated after 12 months, but it ultimately comes down to the prisoner’s behavior during that period of time,” he said. “It’s driven by those personal decisions.”

The department report said 1,312 prisoners received visit restrictions in 2023.

Jahner said some substance abuse-related restrictions can be “extremely punitive” and overly harsh.

One client who recently got out of prison routinely had his visits restricted due to substance abuse violations, she said. 

“This guy had rods and screws in his back, so he’s in a lot of pain,” she said. The Corrections Department “cut him off of the pain medication about a year after he was incarcerated. He did 18 years, and he was always trying to get pain medication, so he would get busted.”

“He never got to see his mom and dad because he was always on a visit restriction.”

She said the man’s sister died while he was in prison and his parents weren’t allowed to visit — even virtually — to relay that information.

Jahner said the restriction of virtual visits shows a purely punitive motive because there’s no risk of drugs being smuggled in and no safety risk.

Kaminski said prisoners have access to the U.S. mail, an electronic mailing system and telephones, but can also lose access to those communication channels for “other misconducts.”

Walker, from Citizens for Prison Reform, said, “Separating families by restricting visits is counterproductive to rehabilitation efforts. This practice removes a crucial support system that can interfere with an individual’s recovery.”

Lynn, 71, from Oakland County has not been able to visit her son — who is serving a 15-year sentence on a drug conviction he received as a teenager — in person or virtually for months. 

Lynn spoke on the condition of not being identified fully for fear of retaliation against her son.

She said she and her husband were able to visit a few times after the prison reopened following the COVID-19 lockdown after not seeing him in person for years. 

However, Lynn said the visits were restricted shortly afterward due to an instance of “inappropriate touching” that occurred while a girlfriend visited her son. 

Kaminski said Corrections doesn’t directly inform a family of a restriction because prisoners may not want that information shared with relatives.

The policy that governs visitation loosely defines what constitutes inappropriate touching, but prohibits touching or exposure of private areas. 

The policy adds that “touching that is incidental to a brief embrace permitted at the beginning and end of a visit shall not be subject to this restriction.”

Sixty-two of the 1,312 visit restrictions in 2023 fell under the sexual misconduct violation type, according to the department report. 

Regardless of the specifics of her son’s violation, Lynn said restricting his visits “punishes her” because she can’t see him at all.

She also said she believes the policy is too harsh on the prisoners themselves.

“The one thing they look forward to is somebody coming to see them,” she said. “To me, this is the most inhumane thing of all the things that we’ve gone through.”

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