Does prison visitation reduce recidivism?

By Joonbeom Bae


In 2014, the United States held approximately 1,561,500 prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities. Compared to 2013, the number of the prisoners has decreased to around 15,400 prisoners. It means that numerous people had been released into society. Naturally, one of the prison’s characteristics is retaliation against what the criminals committed. However, punishment is not the only purpose of the imprisonment. Successful rehabilitation and reentry is an ultimate purpose of the imprisonment for social safety. Therefore, criminologists and correctional officers have come up with programs to rehabilitate inmates in the United States. Recently, numerous scholars have emphasized the importance of prisoner reentry into the society in terms of restorative justice. Correctional administrators, academics, and congressmen are constantly searching for more efficient ways of meeting the goal of prisons reintegrating inmates into the community. Some of the studies found that communication between the inmates and family members has yielded positive outcomes during and after imprisonment (Ohlin, 1951; Tewksbury & DeMichele, 2005). Imprisonment limits communication between inmates and the outside of prison. It makes inmates hard to adjust to society because lack of communication skills and support from family members hinder the reentry process. Visitation can provide a forum for conversation and it can act as a crucial role to strengthen the bond among inmates, family members, and friends. Bales and Mears (2008) conducted research on visitation in prison that allows inmates to communicate and keep an emotional tie with the society by developing social bonds with family members and friends. In-prison visitation is expected to reduce recidivism and help inmates reenter into their community.

Several theories, such as social bond (Hirschi, 1969), social capital (Sampson and Laub 1993), general strain (Agnew, 2005), and labeling theory (Paternoster and Iovanni 1989), mentioned that visitation is expected to help prisoner reentry and reduce recidivism (Bales & Mears, 2008). If this program proves that visitation has a significantly strong effect to reduce recidivism, visitation programs can be implemented more in the U.S prisons. In addition, the empirical studies allow us to understand the relationship between social bond and crime and the process of how to improve successful postrelease outcomes.

However, some people criticize that educational programs, recreational programs, and medical and dental care should not be provided to inmates during punishment. These programs are sometimes viewed as too much or as giving prisoners more than they deserve. In addition, the public might disagree with providing luxuries to inmates with their taxes (Johnson et al., 1997). The public’s views and perceptions are not negligible factors because lawmakers must consider the people’s opinions. However, visitation is relatively cheaper than other programs and it will not arouse the public’s disclosure as much as other expensive programs. Compared with a weak level of public support for some programs to improve institutional management, visitation programs are supported by more than 93% of the public (Applegate, 2001). Do you agree with this?


In terms of satisfying the public’s desire for punishment and rehabilitation, visitation, which does not provide excessive convenience, is a promising program in correctional institutions. Although the program seems promising, it is hard to say that visitation programs are perfect programs. Several programs, which examine visitation’s effectiveness, are not enough to fully figure out the causality to evaluate the effectiveness of inmate visitation. In addition, the researchers did not fully conduct research about the visitation’s influence on inmate’s social bonds and emotional ties with family members and friends. There might be other explanations of visitation’s influence. For example, if an inmate expected that his/her friends or family members were supposed to visit and did not, the inmate will experience frustration or disappointment which can lead to weakening of the social bond. Inmates who did not have any visitations might feel relative deprivation compared with those who have visitations.

Prison visitation has yielded positive results, such as the prevention of violence, victimization in the prison, and the reduction of psychological stress among inmates (Wooldredge, 1997). Inconvenience of communication with the society, which is one of prisons’ special characteristics, deteriorates emotional ties and social bonds. In terms of restoring communication, visitation can provide positive aspects.

Previous Research

Forty three years ago, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1973) recommended that prisons develop policies to implement visitation. Holt and Miller (1972) found that only two percent of inmates who had three or more visitors during the final year of incarceration recidivated within a year of release, compared to 12% of inmates who did not have any visitations. In addition, Furlough programs, which is temporary leave from prison, also have similar results with visitation (Adams & Fischer, 1976).

Bales and Mears (2008) examined data on 7,000 inmates released from the Florida Department of Corrections to find out the influence of visitation on recidivism two years after being released. They also examined the effects of visitation by age, sex, race, type of instant offence, and prior experience to incarceration. The assumption of this study is that the prisoners’ families, friends and community ties have a significant effect which can improve reentry outcome. This assumption is based on social bond theory. Bales and Mears facilitated several theoretical justifications for building the foundation of inmate visitation. For example, Hirschi’s (1969) social bond theory, which suggests that strong bonds to family, friends, and community serves to decrease propensity of committing a crime, was used in anticipation that inmate visitation will reduce recidivism rates. Ohlin’s (1951) study of parole stated that “parole workers have often observed the controlling and supporting effect of close family ties” (p. 49). Sampson and Laub (1993) used social capital, including family social capital and it provides the foundation of inmate visitation. It includes an assistance during and after release from prison. Furthermore, in Sampson and Laub’s (1993) age-graded theory of informal social control, they insisted that social supports are crucial during reentry process. These ideas support justifications for prisoner visitation. General strain theory offers another foundation through which visitation reduces recidivism. The theory posits, in part, that a critical factor in whether strain leads to offending is the type and extent of coping resources and social supports individuals possess (Agnew, 2006).

The researchers suggested that labeling theory can be applied to how inmate visitation might reduce recidivism, and used the term “role engulfment” (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989, p. 380), which explains that the individuals accept certain labels (e.g., offender) and act out behaviors to fit oneself with the label.

One of the most interesting findings in Bales and Mears’ (2008) program is that visitation reduces not only recidivism, but also delays the period of recidivism. Most of the tests in the program stick with these results. However, there are exceptions that women’s group’s and drug-offence group’s results show that there is no effect to reduce recidivism. The author expected that women will have a greater effect from visitation than men. However the results showed that there is no effect on the women’s group (p. 310). Duwe and Clark’s research (2013) shows similar results in that the male group has a greater effect from visitation to reduce recidivism than the female group and the drug-offender group, which did not have a statistically significant effect. There might be several reasons why the women’s group did not have significant effects to reduce recidivism. More than 90% of the samples were male inmates. Therefore, there might not be enough number of female samples. In addition, they did not provide information about the prior-offence of female inmates. If the female inmates mostly consisted of drug offenders, the weak influence on women’s group can be explained. However, further research is needed to figure out why drug-offender and women’s groups are likely to be less influenced by visitation.

Overall, the results support that visitation has a significant effect in reducing recidivism. To explain the causality between visitation and social ties, the variation of inmates’ perception of friends and family members should be measured. For example, researchers can conduct an interview with inmates after family or nonfamily visitation and ask about the perception of themselves, such as whether the inmate has a better perception of themselves than before the visitation. The positive perception after visitation might amplify the effectiveness of visitation programs (reducing recidivism). The statistical data cannot explain the perfect causality between visitation and recidivism because statistics itself has limitations to explain all phenomena. Even so, it helps to look over the relationship between independent and dependent variables.

Barrier of Visitation and How to Encourage Inmate Visitation

Several studies mentioned that there are several factors that hinder an inmate’s family members and friends to visit the inmate. Family members and friends of prisoners are suffering from difficulties which make them hesitate to visit. One of the most significant obstacles is the distance. Usually, prisons are built in rural areas far from cities. If they do not have a car, the family and friends of an inmate cannot visit the prison (Austin & Hardyman, 2004). Many prisoners come from poverty households, so their families are reluctant to pay the costs associated with transportation to the prison (Christian, 2005). Even if the family members have a car, they have to spend too much time because of the far distance. For example, thirty percent of inmates from Florida state prison were incarcerated in the Miami–Dade County area, but only 5% of all Florida inmates were housed in the county (Austin & Hardyman, 2004, p. 23). If the prison is located in a rural area, the prison should operate shuttle buses for visitors between the nearest city and the prison once or twice a week, the accessibility to visit prison might be considerably increased. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that 10% of inmates’ family lived more than 500 miles away from the prison and the family members of the inmates need to spend enormous money and time when they want to visit the prison (Schirmer, Nellis, & Mauer, 2009).

This video shows the problem of how difficult it is to visit prisons due to long distance. The interviewee mentioned that this distance barrier is frustrating. In addition, it requires too much budget to build the system and family members need to have certain devices such as a computer or smart phone. If the family cannot afford to buy the devices, they cannot facilitate this technology’s advantage.

In addition, there are some new types of inmate visitation which overcome the physical distance. Elkhart County Jail started to implement video visitation program.

The video introduces the new program of Elkhart County Jail’s visitation program. Despite the distance between family members and inmates, they can have visitation with remote video chat programs. Visitation time and date is usually limited like visitation only available on the weekends or before 5 p.m.; however, video visitation does not require those strict limitations. One of the most serious barriers is a search process before visiting prisons. It takes a long time before family members or friends meet the inmates. Video visitation is free from this barrier, so it is expected to overcome traditional prison visitation’s difficulties. Supermax-prisons do not usually allow to have prison visitation, especially solitary confinement cell prisoners. However, numerous studies and civil society organizations (CSO) argue that solitary confinement has detrimental effects to solitary confinement inmates, such as serious mental illness (anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis. Juvenile inmates are especially vulnerable to solitary confinement) and maladjustment to society (Castillo, 2015). To minimize the adverse effects of solitary confinement, communication with other people is important. At the first time, solitary confinement was invented in terms of penitence aspect. In the 18th century, the reformers developed this idea to replace cruel and bloody corporal punishments. However, several studies suggest that it is not an effective way to reform inmates (Beaumont & Tocqueville, 1964; Castillo, 2015). Scholars emphasized the importance of communication with outside of prisons, even though the inmates are in the solitary cells. If visitation is not allowed in terms of safety issues, video visitation can be one of the alternative ways to promote communication.

However, the video visitation program is criticized that it cannot provide physical contact which is important to develop affection between the inmates and family members. The affection is important to make inmates successfully go through the imprisonment. Furthermore, there is a criticism that video visitation is inhumane and dystopian. It is described as an expensive way to make the prison worse than it was in the past and increases in-prison violence. For three telecom companies, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, video visitation is a lucrative business for them. They charge money (about $10) whenever video visitation happens. Some scholars point out that a visitation can alleviate the pain from the miserable place and reduce the number of in-prison violence between inmates. The experience from visitation, such as hugs, warm-hearted conversation, holding hands, and kisses, gives the inmates the resilience and helps to successfully go through the sentence. More than 600 prisons in 46 states have some kind of video visitation program. However, video visitation tends to be used as a substitute for prison visitation and in-person visitation is disappearing in the prisons. Because of development of technology, penitentiary system has a wider range of available technology. One psychology experiment conducted by Harry Harlow (1959) can explain that losing the physical contacts and forced screen relationship can deteriorate psychological statement. He used baby monkeys to examine the effects of lack of physical contacts. The group, which did not have enough physical contacts, showed “excessive and misdirected aggression” and they tend to abuse their babies. Even if some parts can be more convenient due to developed technology, we should not ignore the main purpose of penitentiary system, “rehabilitation.”

According to this video, there are several pieces of advice when family members or friends visit a prison. The person in the video mentioned that inmates are usually expecting to have better food from visitation rather than prison food. Providing opportunity to have food from outside of prison can be used for a discipline method. Currently, disciplinary segregation and is used for punishment for violating prison rules because there is no alternative and fair punishment. Some of the prisons do not allow to have visitation which can have physical contacts. In these prisons, providing visitation, including physical contacts and allowing having food, can be used as an incentive for compliance of rules in the prison. If the prison has a place for visitation, they are not that many requirements for implementing visitation. Therefore, inmate visitation has a possibility for an alternative disciplinary method.

The second obstacle is the administrative policies of prisons (Austin & Hardyman, 2004). Nowadays, some prisons attempt to encourage visitation programs. However, most visitation programs are under strict safety and security procedures. Before the visitation program, prisons require background checks on potential visitors whether they have criminal record or not. One news report introduced one story of the state of Arizona that the prisons in Arizona charges certain amount of money to visitors for background checks (Goode, 2011). Arizona lawmakers stated that “The state is doing what it needs to do help with cost. Be mad at the person who is sitting behind bars, not the state!” and they believe that the inmates should not have visitation and they gave up the right when they committed a crime. They use this idea for justifying making money scheme.

Arizona is now charging anyone who visits a prisoner at one of the state’s fifteen run complexes a $25 “background” check fee. According to the New York Times the one-time fee is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation

Arizona lawmakers’ statement does not seem to be valid and it is outdated idea. They just emphasize the prison’s punitive purpose and they ignored the fact that society has a responsibility for make them commit a crime. Blaming criminals and tough on crime might be popular among the public and politicians. The policy’s popularity has huge impact when laws or policies are enacted. After “War on drugs”, there are numerous non-violent drug offenders who are low-income family. It means that the policy just harasses the poor. Many studies provided outcome that visitation yield positive effects such as reducing, delaying recidivism, and helping successful reintegration to society.

Visitation hours are different depending on prisons’ administrative policies. The two Supreme Court cases, Overton v. Bazetta (2003) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003) have affirmed that administrators have a right to limit visitation programs for the safety of the prisons (Farrell, 2004). Researchers need to conduct a research about the difference between the prisons which have longer visitation time and shorter visitation time. If there are significant difference between them, it will be powerful evidence to extend the visitation time and revise the visitation regulations. In addition, more permission of more physical contact during visitation might be good subject to conduct a research.

In 1964, there were attempts to promote inmate visitation with relatively cheaper ways. For example, the U.S Departments of Corrections tried to place inmates in prisons as close to their home communities as possible (Glaser, 1964). In addition, community service agencies and civil society organizations encouraged the public to visit inmates, allowing to use parking lot for visitors, lengthening visiting hours, reducing bureaucratic barriers to visitation, ensuring correctional officers’ professionalization and cultural sensitivity when they supervise or monitor visitation areas, and maintaining visitation rooms that are clean and comfortable (Bales & Mears, 20008). Despite of this efforts, most of the inmates did not have visitation.

Even if this article insist that deregulating and weaker regulations of visitation program is required to maximize its positive effects, unconditional deregulation should not be implemented. There are some drug issues even though the inmates are in the prison. This is because of smuggling. Prison visitation is sometimes used as a channel for drug smuggling. Therefore, the search process for visitors is required. Sometimes, prisons require strip search to visitors in certain circumstances, however they can refuse it.

This video shows the process of security search before prison visitation. They mentioned that all visitor will be searched when they enter the prison and it easily explains the process.

Although family members, friends, or boy/girlfriends want to visit prison to meet their important person in prison, they might hesitate to visit prison due to complication of the process before visitation and psychological burden.

This video explains about distress of being an inmate’s girlfriend. If the prisons tighten regulation of prison visitation, they cannot sustain communication which is a crucial role for inmates’ reentry.

This video introduces the case about inmates’ wives and girlfriends who do not know about visitation process. Some people, who had an experience of prison visitation, made a group and teach about the visitation process. The wives and girlfriends were satisfied with this group and they mentioned that this group is considerably helpful for a person who did not have any experience of prison visitation.

Further Research Suggestion

Compared with other program for inmates, visitation program is not providing excessive luxuries to prisoners and this program is largely supported majority of the publics because visitation can be emotionally accepted by the public (Applegate, 2001). Mailed letters are slow, setting-up phone booth require tremendous budget, and furlough is hard to implement (La Vigne et al., 2005). If researchers can observe the visitation and analyze it, it will be better to understand the process of visitation program. However, it might be problematic to ask (or observe) the visitation even though researchers have good will when they conduct research about visitation. The observation might be immoral and there is a possibility of infringement of human right. Another problem of conducting observation is that inmates will be reluctant to participate in the program. Therefore, interviews with inmates might be more efficient and safer in terms of human rights.

Someone might ask a question, “Will all type of visitation yield positive result?” Probably, visitation of unpleasant guest such as ex-spouse might increase recidivism. The unpleasant guest will cause unnecessary strain or conflict, which causes negative emotions or mental instability for offenders. Furthermore, if inmates have an argument with visitor, the effectiveness of visitation might disappear or be reduced. However, it is hard to figure out whether there was an argument or not because it is impossible to supervise all of the visitations. Even if visitation from unpleasant guest has negative impacts, it is questionable that prisons should limit visitation based on the visitors’ relationship with the inmate. It might be interesting to find out the impact of the unexpected visitation.

Further research can conduct a research about the relationship between the number of anticipated visitation and the actual number of visitation. If the gap between the number of anticipated visitation and the number of actual visitation is larger, the inmate might experience negative feelings including such as frustration, anger, and disappointment. The negative emotions would negatively affect the social bond and emotional tie between inmates and other people. Most of the inmates do not have a visitation and they just hear about other inmates’ visitation. This situation can cause relative deprivation which generate negative emotions and violent behaviors. Therefore, it might be interesting to study inmates who do not have anyone who can visit them. Most of the visitation research has focused on the inmates who have had any visitation.


The United States has the largest prisoner population in the world. The government departments, congress and academic field in criminal justice are attempting to decrease the population of prisoners. As a result, many inmates are released from prison and they are trying to reenter to society. In this situation, the Department of Corrections should consider how to make prisoners successfully reintegrate back into communities. Parole and probation program have been helpful in terms of reentry process. However, they have limited human resources to control all released prisoners. Successful reentry requires not only the governmental support but also the support from family members and society. The efficacy of visitation is supported by many theories and several studies showed its effectiveness. Social bonds theory (Hirschi, 1969) insists that individual’s attachment with important person (e.g., spouse, family member, and friends), and conventional lifestyle prevents the individual’s criminality. Prisons, which is secluded place, is legally allowed to regulate inmates’ right. However, imprisonment hinders keeping social bond and emotional tie. In terms of incapacitation and retaliation, prison’s segregation, which cause several problems, can be justified. However, to minimize the side effect of incarceration, visitation program should be considered as a rehabilitative step and implementation in stronger security level prisons should be considered.

This article suggests that there should be less regulation of administrative process. However, the security process cannot be skipped. In the prisons, there are many drug issues and there is a possibility of smuggling drugs and other items. To control the prison, it should be strictly censored.

From 40% to 80% of newly released offenders first depend on their families after release from prison because of the shortage of money (Nelson, Deess, & Allen, 2011). Family members and friends are a crucial role for prisoners to overcome reentry obstacles, such as employment, financial problems, and accommodations. If inmates have not kept in touch with their family members or friends, it might be difficult for them to ask for help before they settle down. Sometimes, released inmates fail to overcome facing this kind of problems, they have to commit a crime again to survive.

The prison population has been explosively increased in the past three decades. As a result, the number of returning prisoners is also increased. Supervision agents, such as probation officers, are suffered from excessive caseloads and it leads to be unable to assist inmates’ reentry process. Communities are usually reluctant to accept criminals as their neighbor. Therefore, family members and friends’ assistance is a key for successful inmates’ reintegration. Communication, which can be achieved by visitation, is a basic step to receive their assistance so visitation should be more focused


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