Limit on prison visits angers South Bend family
By ALICIA GALLEGOS Tribune Staff Writer
May 23, 2010
SOUTH BEND — When Sam Dickens’ son went to prison earlier this year, the father didn’t think he’d have any problem visiting him at Westville Correctional facility.
After all, Dickens’ nephew is also an inmate in an Indiana prison, and Dickens has been visiting the young man for years.
But Dickens said he was shocked to learn he couldn’t be on his son’s visiting list.
Instead, new visiting restrictions at the Indiana Department of Correction meant Dickens had to choose to visit his son or his nephew, not both.
“I’m so frustrated. It’s just not right,” Dickens said during a recent interview at his home. “They’re separating the families.”IDOC officials explain the new visitation rule was implemented this year because of security concerns.
The restriction specifies extended family members and friends can visit only one IDOC inmate per six months. The rule, said IDOC spokesman Doug Garrison, is to curb rampant contraband trafficking plaguing Indiana prisons.
“We’re trying to reduce the chances of people bringing contraband into our facilities,” Garrison said.
Garrison says the new visitor restriction will help the IDOC better regulate who is coming into their facilities and who might be bringing prohibited items.The spokesman stressed the rule applies only to extended family members and does not affect fathers, mothers, children, sisters, brothers or grandparents.
But relatives such as Dickens and Tracy Franklin argue that many times it’s extended family members, such as aunts and uncles, who have helped raise children.
Franklin, of South Bend, has a son and nephew in Indiana prisons, along with a cousin. She only recently found out about the new restriction.
“I think family members should be able to see their loved ones,” she said. “That’s unfair. I can’t go see my nephew. I can’t go see my cousin.”
Dickens said his nephew, Greg Dickens, always looked up to him and that going to visit the man “empowers him,” and “kinda helps keep him alive.”Greg Dickens was convicted as a teenager of murder in the death of South Bend Police Cpl. Paul Deguch. He is now serving a life sentence.
Dickens’ son Samson Dickens just recently began serving a 6-year sentence for assault, his father said.
Garrison acknowledges the visiting policy will no doubt adversely affect families who are not at fault. But, he said the rising climate of contraband has forced correctional facilities to tighten their rules.
Take for instance one recent month, Garrison said, where IDOC officials confiscated 250 cell phones from one prison facility.”It’s absolutely crazy,” he said.
Indiana prisons are not alone.
In recent years, banned items — particularly cell phones — have steadily grown in prisons across the country, according to the American Correctional Association.
A visitor in a wheelchair sitting on hordes of cell phones. Civilians throwing tennis balls or footballs over prison yard fences with hidden items. Visitors slipping products inside sleeves.
“Inmates are creative,” ACA spokesman Eric Schultz said.Schultz said prisons are making various efforts to fight contraband, although he said he has not heard of other prisons restricting extended family members.
“That’s interesting,” he said of the IDOC rule. “I can’t say we have heard that.”
In Michigan, a similar visiting restriction is in effect, according to the MDOC website.
Proposed visitors can be on visiting lists for immediate family members, but only on the list of one prisoner who is not immediate family.
The rule indicates aunts, uncles or other family members can be included as “immediate family,” if they can provide verification they served as a surrogate parent.MDOC Spokesman John Cordell said he is not surprised about Indiana enforcing the new restriction.
“Unfortunately visitors are one of the ways contraband comes into prisons,” he said.
Visitors might not seem like that big a deal to those on the outside, but the Rev. David Link says for prisoners, they mean the world.
Link, former University of Notre Dame law school dean and now prison chaplain and deputy director of religious and community services for the IDOC, said inmates who have more family visits have a better attitude while in prison and are more likely to be successful upon release.”There’s not much that’s more important to the incarcerated than being able to visit with their families,” Link said. “It doesn’t just make them turn their life around, it makes them a better-acting prisoner.”
Link adds that non-family members — such as mentors, friends, or teachers — can often have an even greater impact on prisoners than an immediate family member. On the same note, an immediate family member can easily be the bad influence.
“We gotta look at it as a case-by-case basis,” Link said. “Someone has gotta look at who is best to visit and who might not be best to visit.”
Rather than a blanket limitation, Link believes, a better balance needs to be made between visiting benefits and maintaining security.
“We can’t let up on the security,” he said. “But we also gotta think of people as individuals.”As for the IDOC, Garrison said extended family members who would like to appeal the visiting restriction can always request an exception from the prison superintendent.
“I would encourage people to do that,” he said.
Dickens said he has made the difficult decision to visit his son in prison and not his nephew. He is considering appealing to the IDOC for an exception.