Oregon prisons push inmate-family visits to keep prisoners from coming back

November 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections concluded "visitation significantly decreased the risk of recidivism"

Bryan Denson
The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon prison officials have worked for two years to improve connections between inmates and their families, a response to studies that show prisoners who get visits are less likely to return to prison.

The key prompt for this work was a November 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections that concluded "visitation significantly decreased the risk of recidivism," and that "visits from siblings, in-laws, fathers and clergy were the most beneficial in reducing the risk of recidivism, whereas visits from ex-spouses significantly increased the risk."

"The findings," according to the study's authors, "suggest that revising prison visitation policies to make them more 'visitor friendly' could yield public safety benefits by helping offenders establish a continuum of social support from prison to the community."

Oregon Department of Corrections officials read the Minnesota study and were staggered when they crunched the numbers and found that 59 percent of the roughly 14,000 prisoners in their lockups got no visitation.

Officials looked at their own visitation policies, according to spokeswoman Betty Bernt, and asked themselves tough questions: How much of the poor visitation rate was their fault? What were their policies on keeping nuclear families together? What about their policy of not allowing people with criminal backgrounds to visit?

Corrections officials from across the state set up a working group to improve the dismal percentage of inmates connecting with their families.

They recently passed out a survey to a large segment of inmates to help guide ways they could improve visitation. The questionnaire asked them questions about what type of support might be helpful to their transition from prison to home. Responses are due by April 30.

Corrections officials also considered setting up prisoners with trained volunteer mentors and relaxing visitation rules for inmates who are in disciplinary housing units.  

They also increased visiting hours and special events. Salem's Santiam Correctional Institution, for instance, began Thursday visiting hours earlier this year designed for inmates to spend time with their children.

"Other ideas for possible future events include a movie and popcorn night, ice cream social night, craft night and so on," the Department of Corrections Facebook page announced a few months ago.

In October 2012, corrections officials rolled out a video visiting system that put inmates face to face – even if electronically. They began at the prison system's biggest prison, Snake River Correctional Institution (capacity: 3,050 inmates), and the smaller Warner Creek Correctional Facility, both in far eastern Oregon.

Nearly all of the state's prisons now have video visitation areas.

"To date," the Department of Corrections reports, "there have been 29,000 completed video visits, the majority of which have taken place at Snake River Correctional Institution."

Corrections officials also rolled out an email system that allows inmates with MP3 players to send and receive email.

While it's not yet clear what the measures mean to the rate of prisoners who return to prison, one thing is certain. Prison officials report that 60 percent of adults in the custody of the Department of Corrections now get some form of visitation.

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