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State Prison visitation policy criticized by inmate families, others

Posted at 4:55 PM, Nov 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-19 19:05:20-05

HELENA — A new visitation policy at Montana State Prison is unduly limiting the face-to-face time prisoners can spend with their loved ones – time that helps them prepare for life after prison, their relatives and advocates said Monday.

“We need to get the inmates being able to talk to their families, see their families,” said Edie Shreves of Helena, whose son is in prison. “If it means you go back to having longer visitation, we go back to having longer visitation.”

But state corrections officials said the new policy is not trying to restrict visitation for inmates, but rather an effort to seek the best way to enable visitors and deal with staffing shortages at the prison.

“We recognize how important it is for inmates to maintain solid connections with family and friends in the community,” said Lynn Guyer, the warden at MSP. “For that reason, we work hard to maintain a balance between providing services like visitation and ensuring security at the facility.”

Shreves, other inmate relatives and corrections officials spoke Monday at the legislative Law and Justice Interim Committee.

The Corrections Department changed visitation rules at MSP this spring year as a pilot project and will review the changes after it’s been in effect for a year, officials said.

In August 2018, the prison reduced visiting days from four days a week to two days a week.

Under the new policy, visiting days have been increased back to four days a week, Thursday through Sunday. But visitors must register online and can reserve only one, two-hour slot per week.

Unreserved spots are filled on a first-come basis once online registration closes a week before the visit.

Video visits, via telephone, also can be arranged during “open time” at the housing unit where the inmate lives, at a cost of $4.50 for 20 minutes.

Shreves said she’d been prevented from seeing her son because her ex-husband had already reserved a spot to talk to their son.

Her ex-husband, Richard, also spoke Monday, telling the panel that the new visitor system has not been well-explained to those who want to visit their relatives in prison.

“Those of us who have loved ones in the prison don’t ever hear about the changes until we arrive at the front gate and go into the administration building to visit,” he said. “I think we need to be provided notification of changes.”

Janee Weber, an advocate for inmates and their families, said neighboring states have more liberal visitation for prison inmates, with more days, longer hours and more tables for inmates.

“Revising prison visitation policies to make the more visitor-friendly will help (inmates) get together with the family,” she said. “It can restore some of the more normal feelings of outside living.”

State Deputy Corrections Director Cynthia Wolken told the panel that the prison is not intending to reduce visitation for inmates, but that the prison has staffing shortages, and was looking for ways to handle visits with fewer staff.

She also said the prison has “mandatory posts” that must be maintained, and that visitation is not one of those posts, and could be canceled if staffers are not available to monitor visits.