A plan by the Maine State Prison in Warren to cut back on visitation beginning later this month is raising anxiety among some prisoners’ families and friends who fear it will discourage contact.
In addition to doing away with most evening visitation, the prison will also require anyone who wants to visit a prisoner to schedule it in advance. The warden says both strategies are intended to make the best use of limited resources.
Currently, prisoners’ families and friends who are cleared for visits at the prison are able to show up at 8:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. They can choose to attend three visits in a single day if they want. They don’t have to call ahead.
But beginning Feb. 29, evening visitation, with the exception of the one on Sunday, will be eliminated. And visitors will have to make an appointment by calling or emailing the prison at the beginning of the week.
“Right now you see just a handful of families who are coming to the prison anyway,” says Michelle Sanborn. “There are over 900 inmates in the prison. I would say probably 100-150 of those inmates receive regular visits.”
Sanborn has been visiting her husband Anthony at the Maine State Prison once a week for the past nine years.
“So, there’s not a huge volume of visitation anyway,” she says. “So the more that you hinder people’s ability to get to the prison — and it’s in a remote location — those people are going to find it more of an inconvenience and their loved ones are going to be cut off from the outside.”
And, says Sanborn, visitation has been shown to prevent recidivism and boost morale. That’s one of the reasons she says she’s so motivated to bring family and friends to see Anthony on a regular basis.
Sanborn has a full-time job, so on Saturdays, she she leaves her house in southern Maine at 6:30 a.m., drives to Warren and spends all three visiting times with her husband.
The visits are supposed to last two hours, but Sanborn says they sometimes get cut short because an inmate isn’t brought down on time or the check-in process gets bogged down. Things like that discourage prisoners, she says, and so does the thought of fewer visits.
“I feel bad for people who are working and an evening is their only opportunity to go and see these people,” says Dianne, who asked that her last name not be used.
Dianne also regularly visits a friend in the Maine State Prison. She says she travels from New Hampshire 3 1/2 hours each way to make the trip, and has appreciated the option of coming in the evening.
“And as far as myself personally, I wish I could go see him more often,” she says. “It would make me feel better. We enjoy our visits and it’s so hard for me because I live so far away.”
Warden Randall Liberty says he understands these challenges, but he says he did an analysis and found that use of the evening visits was limited.
“Sometimes we’d have three or four people visiting,” he says. “And I’m able to reduce overtime by about 40 hours a week if I go to the four daytime visits and the one evening visit. So it comes down to it’s an inefficient use of resources for just a few visitors.”
Liberty says requiring visitors to schedule appointments ahead of time will also help him plan for the appropriate level of staffing on a given day.
The Department of Corrections has recently put out a request for proposals for a telephone and video service, and Liberty says he’s hoping that Skype may be one way for prisoners’ family and friends to augment their visitation.
Some prisons and jails have used Skype as a substitute for in-person contact visits, but Liberty says that’s not the plan for Maine.
“There’s no plan or any discussion in place to reduce any contact visits,” he says. “We recognize the importance and the value of contact with loved ones.”
Jan Collins, whose son is an inmate at the Maine State Prison, isn’t convinced.
“Many things get told to families at one point in history and at another point in history, they’re changed,” she says.
For example, Collins says, visitation used to be allowed every day. When that was changed to four days a week, evening visits were offered instead.
But now that’s being cut back as well, and Collins says all she knows is what she feels, and that’s another painful loss.