A step that I completed three times this past weekend. Having done it for the past five years, I really don’t need any instruction, I now know it is required. That is only one of the things that must be done when you visit a prisoner. Those who are familiar with the routine don’t give it a thought, but it is discomforting to someone who visits for the first time.
Knowledge is the main key to a successful visit. Visiting a prison is not scary, it is just different. Security measures and dress codes must be adhered to. Your freedoms are also restricted to insure the safety and control of all inside those doors. Prisoners in a visiting room are not horrible people to be terrified of, they are just people who made a mistake at some point in their life. They are in that visiting room spending cherished time with friends, their parents, spouse, children, grandparents. Anyone who is on their visiting list and has been cleared to visit.
So what is involved in visiting a prisoner? While I can only speak for Michigan, I would presume that other states have similar practices and requirements. Step one is the prisoner has to fill out a visitors list, putting on it the people who will or may visit him. Before a person can go inside a state prison to visit they must fill out an application and submit it to the prison, then wait to obtain clearance. Once you have received clearance it “moves” with you if the prisoner should be transferred to another location.
Once approved you are free to visit the prisoner during that prison’s designated visiting times. Information regarding each prison’s visiting hours and other important information can be located online. You may want to call the prison to verify whether their vending machines use cash or if you have to purchase and load a vending card. You will need quarters for a locker where you will be required to store your car keys, jackets, or any other items you carry in but are not allowed to take into the visiting room. Keep in mind that most prisons do not allow you to bring your cell phone, beeper, pager, or any other similar devise inside the building. Those items must be left in your car.
The easiest way to go about this is to take in the cash you plan to use for vending (some prisons require quarters only in a clear plastic bag and limit the dollar amount per person), your vending card or funds to load one, your picture ID, and your car keys. You are not allowed to wear anything, such as a watch, that contains a battery or is electronic, but other jewelry is allowed. An inventory of all jewelry, belts, glasses, and medical items, such as an ankle brace, will be noted at check-in, and then verified that it is still with you at check-out. That is not because they think someone is going to steal it off you, but to make sure that a visitor has not transferred contraband to a prisoner. Prisoners are also searched/patted down prior to the visit and again go through a “shake down” after the visit.
Keep in mind that clothing should be conservative — no short shorts, low-cut or revealing clothing such as skin tight leggins, no hoodies, no jackets/coats in the visiting room. The only thing you are allowed to carry into the room is your funds or vending card and your locker key.
So, you’ve done your preliminary steps, you have been approved, you know when to visit, how to dress, how to bring in funds for vending machines. Now what? If possible, it is best to advise your prisoner in advance the date and anticipated time when you plan to visit. This allows the prisoner to be properly clothed for a visit and to be where his Commanding Officer can quickly locate him. My son knows the estimated time of my arrival and is able to see me drive by from his bunk window. When he sees my car go by he walks up by his C.O. and awaits the call from the visiting room so he can be released for a visit. This helps to shorten the time you have to wait before the visit begins.
When you arrive at the prison take in only the limited items mentioned above and lock everything else in your car. You will need to complete a sign-in sheet where you fill out your personal information, including your name, address, birth date, the license plate of your car, the prisoner’s number, and your relationship to the prisoner. You will need to present picture ID, which they will hold until you leave. They will note any jewelry you are wearing: 2 earrings, one ring, one pair of glasses, etc. The desk will call back to the prisoner’s bunk and advise the C.O. that the prisoner has a visit.
If your prisoner sent anything up to the desk for you to take home you will receive it from the visitor’s desk, will be instructed to sign that you have picked up. It is always a good idea for the prisoner to let you know ahead of time what they have sent to be picked up so you have some knowledge of what to expect. Items they send to the front for pickup are only held for thirty days. At my most recent visit I had to pick up a large envelope, a very heavy box filled with paperwork and books, and a huge plastic bag filled with numerous items my son had crocheted since my prior stop. I have a small hand cart I take with me which helps in transporting the items going home from the building to the parking lot.
Make sure you have the appropriate money and/or vending card purchased and loaded before going back to the visiting room. It is also a good idea to use the restroom prior to your visit, as bathroom visits are limited, require you to be escorted out by a guard, and also require another complete search and pat-down prior to re-entering the visiting room.
Once your prisoner arrives in the visitor area (you will not see this, he will arrive through a separate entry), he will be patted down, enter the visiting room, and be either standing at attention near the doorway until you arrive, or be already seated at an area he was instructed to use by the visiting room officer. Once he is in the visiting area you will be called and taken back.
You will walk through a scanner, then be told to remove your socks and shoes and show the guard the bottom of your feet. If it is warm enough, sandals make this step much easier. You will then put your footwear back on. You will be asked to open your mouth and raise your tongue. You will have to stand with your back to the guard, legs spread, arms raised, and be patted down. You will have to pull out your pockets so they can be checked. If you are wearing a shirt with rolled up sleeves, they will have to be unrolled so they can be checked. All of these steps are to prevent contraband from entering the prison. The search and pat-down are done by a guard of the same gender as the visitor. Your hand will be marked with a black light pen and you will be then taken to the visiting room.
Visits in prisons are contact visits. This means you are in the same room with your prisoner and with all other prisoners who are having visits. Be aware that prisoners are not allowed to converse with each other in the visiting room. A cordial greeting is okay, but beyond that they can not congregate and or hold conversations with each other. When you enter the room you will spot your prisoner and go to where ever they are located. You are allowed to hug your prisoner upon greeting and upon leaving. There are usually cards and other games available on a shelf to use during the visit if you choose to, and also some toys for children. There are vending machines to purchase beverages, snacks and sandwiches. Keep in mind that this is usually food the prisoner is unable to get during their day-today life and so this is a special treat to be able to eat and drink items such as burgers, burritos, candy, and pop. They have limited items available in their commissary, but not all. I normally purchase the photos tickets and food for my son, only having a light snack myself during the entire day I am there. I go out to dinner after the visit. I generally go for about 8-9 hours per visit and spend between $25-$35 in vending per day.
Remember, everything in a prison is limited and controlled. The prisoner is not allowed to get up and walk around, they are not even allowed to approach the vending machines or area where games are stored. You will have to get everything on your own. Food items must be removed from their package and put on a paper plate before taking it to the table where you and your prisoner are seated. There are microwaves available in the visiting room for heating foods.
You will be able have photos taken of your prisoner solo and/or with you. Photo “tickets” are purchased either at the front desk as you check in or are cards that are purchased from the vending machine. The cost is very reasonable, $2.50 gets you two 4×6 prints of the photo, one for you to take home, one for the prisoner to keep. At some point during the visit you will be called up to have your photo taken before a mural in the visiting room. Photographer is one of the jobs that prisoners can hold while they are incarcerated. This is the one time when the prisoner is allowed to get up, walk over to have his photo taken, then return to his seat. The other is if he is going out for a restroom visit for which he is escorted out by a guard.
If you as a visitor need to use the restroom you will have to advise the guard at the desk. You will then go back to your seat and wait until another officer comes into the room to escort you out. They will sometimes make an announcement asking whether any additional women and/or men need to go, but sometimes it is not announced, so keep your eye out. It is often easier to go out when a group is going then have to wait later. Bathroom trips are limited and keep in mind you will again have to go through the metal detector, remove shoes, get patted down, etc. depending on how far outside of the visiting room you have to go to use a restroom.
If a visiting room becomes crowded some visitors may be asked to leave. The general rule is first in, first out. Some prisons base who is asked to leave first on the distance traveled to visit. If visitor one was in first but traveled 300 miles and visitor two only traveled 100 miles, visitor two may be asked to leave before visitor one. Generally they will make an announcement and ask for volunteers to leave prior to selecting who must go. I have only had to leave earlier than intended 2-3 times in the past five years, Father’s Day being one of them. For that reason I now avoid visiting on that holiday.
When you are ready to leave you must advise the desk overseeing the waiting room, then go sit back down and wait. An officer will arrive in the visiting room to escort you out. Keep in mind that it may take some time before you are actually allowed to exit, and the wait may be extensive if it is during shift change or count. Your prisoner can advise you on when those things occur. You may hug your prisoner before departing, and if photos were taken you would have received two copies of each picture — one to leave with the prisoner, one to take home.
During the exit process you will be asked to pass your marked hand under a black light, they will verify you are wearing the same jewelry you entered with, and your drivers license will be returned to you. Retrieve your items out of the locker and you are free to go.
You have now survived your first prison visit. A simple walk in the prison. Nothing scary. Perfectly routine.