"Just Visiting" In Jail : Practical aspects

I remember as a kid playing the “Monopoly” board game, which infamously has a Jail space where your pawn can either be “In Jail” or “Just Visiting”.

How does “Just Visiting” a jail or prison work in real life? According to American TV ™, “visiting” more or less means that you are going there to see a specific inmate, you are escorted into a controlled meeting area, and there might even be a barrier between you and the inmate.

Is that it? Are all prisons and jails like this? Are there any cases where visitors are allowed to mingle more or less freely with inmates? To make an analogy, many other residential institutional environments permit visitors more or less uncontrolled access to many campus areas. E.g. most public universities don’t seem to mind if you wander around casually or even eat in the dining hall as long as you don’t try to take advantage of student discounts or benefits (i.e. commit fraud) and don’t cause a disturbance. Likewise, I visited a Catholic monastery once and was permitted to wander freely around the grounds and chapel and chat with whatever monks or priests might be interested in chatting with me. The only place I couldn’t go was the residential areas.

There are low security prisons where you visit in an open area. In those prisons, the prisoners are restricted to the grounds, but more or less have free run, and are required to be in their cells only at night. You can’t visit any time you want-- it’s just during visiting hours on visiting days, but you can touch and hug the prisoner, and if you have a gift that has been approved, you can hand it over personally. You will not necessarily be searched, but the guards have the right to demand to search you before permitting you access to the area. They probably search the prisoners arter visiting, although I’m not sure.

Being in that kind of low security is something that has to be earned, though, unless you are serving a very short sentence for a non-violent offense. Some lifers who are elderly, and may have been in higher security prisons, or areas of the prison when they were younger, are in lower security as they are no longer considered much of a threat.

I have a friend whose grandfather was in prison for armed robbery, and I once went with her when she visited him. It was very low-key, and almost more like visiting someone in an ordinary retirement home, than like prison on TV. He was on the tail end of a 20 year sentence, and wasn’t eligible for parole for something that had to do with his plea bargain, so I’m guessing he actually did something pretty serious, like shot someone, who survived, or maybe had an accomplice who shot someone, and could have been charged with murder. I didn’t ask. There must have been some reason he didn’t get out early for getting two days credit for good time-- like a concurrent sentence for a second charge. But he must have served with good behavior to be in such a low security area. They even had trouble finding him when we first got there, because they had to check the snack bar, and the TV room, and the outside yard. They said something about him probably being in the TV room, because his TV he was allowed to have in his cell was out being repaired (this was about 15 years ago). Pretty low security.

I’ve read descriptions in books where visiting in high security is like on TV, with a bullet-proof barrier, and old-fashioned phone receivers for talking. Read Dead Man Walking. The nun talks about a prisoner she visited being in chains and cuffs even though he was on the other side of a barrier.

Depends entirely on the security regime in the prison. The higher the security regime, the more controlled and restricted the visiting environment.

There may be places - particularly pre-release open prisons - where visitors have a high degree of freedom and can go to most places, but even the most relaxed prison does have secure areas, and control on movements between different areas, for obvious reasons. And in fact most prisons have a visiting area, which is only a small part of the prison. Prisoners and visitors may (or may not) be allowed to mix freely in the visiting area, but not elsewhere.

Every time I visited someone in jail there was a glass and steel barrier and the telephones. I think the major concern was that there would be drugs or other contraband transferred if there was any direct contact. Obviously where conjugal visits are allowed there won’t be barriers.

Visiting a Federal Prison - Official
State of California - Official (random example)

New York state rules here.

You can’t just visit a prison in general*. You have to be visiting a specific prisoner. So you go to the prison and tell them who you want to see. The prisoner is then brought to the visiting area where the two of you can talk for a few hours. Most prisons do not have any barriers separating the prisoners and the visitors.

When the visit is over, the visitor leaves. The prisoner is then searched (usually strip searched).

*There is a list of public officials who are allowed to visit prisons any time they wish and go pretty much wherever they want to. But this is more in a sense of performing the duties of their office rather than conducting a social visit.

I volunteered at a prison like this one semester at college with my church. The inmates lived in dorms, the chaplain selected a few prisoners to come to the multipurpose room to for a weekly bible study. Before I joined, the group was about 6 college age women, left alone with about 8 men ages 20-45 (although they said guards usually poked their heads in every few minutes).

The prison was minimum security, and was meant for short term stays and to transition longer term prisoners back into a less structured environment. The prisoners slept bunk rooms of 20-30, and seemed to have free run within the grounds as you said. While we were restricted to the multipurpose room, other volunteer groups may have had access to other parts of the prison depending on their work. We were never searched going in or out (although we were vouched for by the chaplain) but probably went through metal detectors on the way in.

In the South Dakota state pen you are in a large room with many tables. You must keep your hands above the table at all times. There are vending machines where you may purchase items and consume them there.

No touching!!!

I visited the famed fraudster Billie Sol Estes when he was being held in a minimum-security facility outside of El Paso, Texas, and it was like that. I knew his nephew, we’d been high-school students together, and I went with him to see “Uncle Billie.” The visiting room was open, and everyone sat at different tables. No barriers of any kind. That was my first time leaving the US too, when the nephew and I stepped across the border to Juarez.

Another friend of mine was being held in county jail for some minor offense, and there was indeed a glass barrier between us when I visited him, and we had to speak by phone. Heh, I would smuggle doobies into him. An inmate friend of his was a trustee who emptied the trash cans in the visitor area. That was back when I still smoked and smoking was still common everywhere. We had a routine where I would stash some joints in a cigarette pack, while there take the last cigarette out of the pack to smoke and then throw the pack into the trash. The trustee friend would collect the pack and joints later on.

No idea whether prisons are doing this, but many jails around here seem to be moving from the “glass partition with two phone receivers” visitation to something like closed-circuit Skyping. The visitor often isn’t even in the same building as the inmate. Undoubtedly, this limits the opportunities for introducing contraband into the jail.

But, otoh since prisons are often in remote locations it could allow for more visitors.

The jails I’m aware of that have moved to this system don’t use internet-based visitation - it’s a self-contained network. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t work for allowing remote visitation.

Apparently in Peru, the visitation is very relaxed. See here: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=723520

I have the worst fucking attorneys …

When I’ve visited an inmate at a Massachusetts county jail, it’s been like maximum security in a bad movie. There’s a 2-hour window every 3 days, based on which building your visitee is held in. Actual visiting sessions are only 30 minutes but you can go back for a second round. You sign in at the door, show ID, say which prisoner you’re visiting so he can be rounded up, and get a UV-ink stamp on your hand. A prisoner can decline to see a visitor, btw.

When it’s time, a deputy calls the names one by one, you gather in a group, get your ink stamp UV-lit next to a security camera, and get escorted past the double locked doors and barbed wire into the visiting center. There you’ll find a glass-encased inner room with seats and phones around the outside, you pick one, the prisoners are led in and find their visitors. There is no opportunity for physical contact. You can talk about whatever you like but be aware that you’re probably being recorded and that those recordings can be used as evidence. After half an hour, the deputy will call time, and all visitors will be led back out, through the security doors and past the UV light / camera again.

No gifts are permitted, but you may replenish a canteen account with which the prisoner can by sundries, ordered ahead. Reading matter is permitted only if it is shipped directly by the publisher. Letters in white envelopes only, no enclosures, everything is pre-read and censored as deemed appropriate, both ways.

No idea how much more restrictive it can be in maximum security, except perhaps to ban visitors entirely.

A little tangent here: When I went to explore the grounds of the state mental hospital (Human Services Center) in Yankton, SD to look at the old buildings, I was surprised that they not only let me just wander the grounds, but that there was a minimum security prison unit on the grounds. I stood and watched all the prisoners walking from one building to another and it didn’t look like they had any escorts. Apparently they use these prisoners as workers in the Human Services Center as well as other facilities around Yankton.

Some county jails are changing to a video visit system that does allow for remote visiting.

Shawnee County Jail in Kansas has contracted with Securus for all visits (except privileged: attorney, chaplain, etc.). You can use either the terminals in the lobby of the jail or any internet-connected computer with a webcam anywhere in the world. The last I heard, use of the lobby kiosks was still free; remote visits are a dollar a minute.

The Kansas state prison system is supposed to be developing a system for video visits too, although I don’t think it is working yet. Otherwise, in-person visits in Kansas prisons depend on custody level and facility: inmates in “the hole” [segregation] have to use a video kiosk with visitors sitting in another building in the compound, while even medium-security inmates have the use of a small outside yard with benches, etc., and can walk around holding hands with their visitor. (The inmates will be strip-searched after the visit.)

I don’t know whether it’s the case in South Dakota, but several - maybe all - of Georgia’s state psychiatric hospitals provides forensic psychiatric evaluation and treatment for mentally ill people from the state’s jails and prisons. I wonder whether the prisoners you saw were trusties that worked there, or if they might have been undergoing treatment?

That said, the hospital that provides care for maximum security inmate/patients has a very rigorous screening and monitoring process for visitation, and I think they’re also moving ahead with a closed-circuit system for video visits. (One of my husband’s former colleagues had a spectacular meltdown and is now housed there. Very sad for him and his entire family…)

I grew up in South Dakota. When I was in high school the governor (or whoever) made a huge investment in internet infrastructure. And guess who they got to do the work? They were all minimum-security inmates and were given a surprising amount of freedom to go about their business without supervision. The faculty just told us to ignore them. Maybe they figured there were enough grown-ups around.

After I graduated I got my first shitty menial job. One of the employees was an inmate on some kind of work program. Every day they let him out of jail and he hopped on a bicycle and came to work. Then at night he had to pedal himself back to jail.

I know this is getting off OP, but that was my experience with minimum security in South Dakota. Apparently they are lenient when it comes to trusting the well-behaved prisoners to go about with minimal supervision.

No, they were actual prisoners at the Yankton Minimum Unit. As you can see from there, they do work in the Human Services Center (which is on the same grounds) as well as other places.

It’s hard to see, but in the picture here, the buildings on the left are the Human Services Center and the older buildings on the right are the Yankton Minimum Unit.