Visiting relatives in prison study

Prison visits are known to reduce recidivism and help prisoners remain connected so they have people to support them on release, but the process of finding information about visitation is largely unreliable and untrustworthy, a La Trobe University study has found.

“I looked online but I still got in trouble for dress code once. Lace. Lace on the back of my shirt. Not cleavage, or it being skintight…lace. You’re not allowed to wear any lace, not in max, but there was no information about that, for I wouldn’t have worn it if I knew. I had to change into this old smelly shirt to go in or my visit was to be cancelled [getting emotional]…this was my first visit and I had driven over four hours to get there.”- Study participant

The study found most visitors, particularly those new to the prison system, found it extremely difficult to find information about how to organise a visit, what to wear, and the appropriate process and behaviour during a visit.

Many thought they had been given appropriate advice, but when they arrived at the prison their visit was cancelled or they were given a warning because they had worn unsanctioned clothing, brought a banned object, or had talked to another visitor, for instance.

The visitors said the poor information and process added another layer of stress to an extremely difficult situation that had often already brought them condemnation and embarrassment from their community.

The study, published in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, was led by Dr Nicole Ryan, a criminologist in the La Trobe University Law School, in collaboration with Dr Nathan Ryan from the Australian Catholic University.

The academics recruited 248 participants who completed an online survey about their experiences in access information about visiting someone in prison. Of those, 21 agreed to participate in an anonymous and confidential in-depth interview.

It is the first research to investigate how people new to prison visitation find information about how to apply for visitation approval, the rules and requirements, and what could be expected during the visitation process.

Prisoners who are visited in prison have been found to experience less mental health problems, are less likely to have instances of misconduct, and are more likely to have a favourable perception of procedural legitimacy, all of which results in a safer living environment for prisoners and working environment for correctional staff.

For most people, information about visitation was extremely difficult to find and misinformation often caused problems during their visits, making it a very stressful situation rather than a meaningful one with the prisoner.

"I was a mess because no one told me anything and I could not get anything out of anyone" - Study participant

So you’re not allowed to talk.  You’re told very quickly to shut the fuck up.  Like, [shakes her head] you’re not allowed to make any noise.”- Study participant

"When [he] first went to prison I was trying to find out what I needed to do to visit him. The department’s website was not very clear. There was no information about him needing to put me on the approved visitor list and that I would not be approved until he did this. I did not find this out until I think the third person I spoke to on the phone at the prison and I was only told that after specifically asking if he need to do that because I was told that information by a person on a Facebook group for prisoners’ family that I found. I was getting very frustrated with what was taking so long for my approval to come through and no one was giving me the information I needed. Each time I spoke to someone I was getting different information, and different information from the website. You would think that they would have a checklist or something that they could just run through with all the information you need to know when first applying to visit, but no." - Study participant

"I quickly learned not to bother with the phone line to the prison to get information. I mean, you could be trying for hours to get through on the phone, and then when you do finally get through the person on the end gives you the wrong information and you get in trouble when you go visit because you don’t have something you need, or you have brought something you shouldn’t have, or worn inappropriate clothing, all because you got the wrong information from them, and you try to tell the officer this when visiting but they don’t care, they just cancel your visit. So yeah, why would you trust them? Now if I need to know anything I just ask online in the Facebook group and there is generally someone that has the information because you know, they have been through it, they know, and they know how important it is for us to do the right thing so we get our visit, so they don’t tell you crap that’s not true." - Study participant

Dr Ryan said while visitation is widely recognised as a potential protective factor against reincarceration and is promoted by policy makers and researchers as a cost-effective programming tool that is relatively easy to implement in prison, not all prisoners are visited.

“Considering how important it is for visits to occur, it is vital that we ensure the probability of prisoners being visited is not being jeopardised by how visiting information is being provided to potential visitors,” she said.

Dr Ryan said their findings highlight the need for:

  • Better supports to be implemented that provide assistance in navigating the prison visitation system and learning the rules to facilitate ease of access to prison visitations;
  • Future research to further examine and determine the common stressors experienced by people new to the prison visitation system, the trends and patterns in these experiences and whether they differ for different groups of visitors, and how these experiences might impact a person’s information seeking ability so different supports can be identified that would improve the outcomes from an individual’s information-seeking process to facilitate faster and more frequent access to prison visitation for visitors and prisoners.

The study, Searching for the unexpected – understanding information-seeking behaviours of people new to prison visits, is available here.

DOI: 10.1080/13218719.2023.2272910

Media Contact

  • A study participant is available to be interviewed under anonymous pseudonym.
  • Dr Ryan is available for interview.

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