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Maine Is Considering Taking Away Contact Visits In County Jails

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Officer Lori Marks demonstrates video visitation at the York County Jail in January.

Prisoners, mental health advocates, children’s advocates and families of those incarcerated are urging the Maine Department of Corrections not to do away with contact visits in county jails.

The DOC is considering eliminating that requirement and allowing jails to switch to video visitation instead. Jail administrators say too many drugs are being smuggled into their facilities, but critics say the proposed policy is cruel and would run counter to the department’s own guiding principles.

At a public hearing, no one spoke in favor of the policy change, something that a growing number of jails around the country are embracing as a way to reduce contraband and staffing costs.

The Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn is one jail that’s adopting the practice. In an interview earlier this year Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said he hoped video visitation would cut down on in-person visits.

“We’re hoping that with this increased form of contact, through the video visitation, that maybe we’ll have less traffic in and out here and it will put less stress on scheduling it because it involves staff time,” he said.

Now the DOC is proposing to eliminate contact visits in county jails. And for Carol Blakeney, the thought of that is devastating. Her 24-year-old son is incarcerated at the Maine State Prison. Before that he spent nearly a year in the Cumberland County Jail, where she says the only way she could talk to him was through glass partition on a phone.

“And I can tell you that was bad enough. Because not being able to hug him or hold his hand for months at a time was the most difficult times I’ve ever had as a mother,” she says.

Now that her son is at the Maine State Prison, Blakeney is able to visit him in person. She says those visits, and the time she spends with God, are what get her through each week. She remembers the first time she was able to meet with him with no glass between them.

“It had been a year that we were finally able to have that contact visit and we had that first hug. And I can’t even begin to describe to you what that feels like. Neither one of us would let go. It was the longest hug that we ever had and we’ve had contact ever since then,” she says.

Studies show that in-person visits, even behind glass, are important because they help maintain family ties and reduce the likelihood that a prisoner will reoffend. Even the DOC’s own mission statement says that it will provide “practices, programs and services which are evidence-based.”

In doing so, Claire Berkowitz of the Children’s Alliance of Maine, says the DOC should consider the psychological effects on 20,000 Maine children affected by parental incarceration. Berkowitz says Maine’s parental incarceration rate of 8 percent is the highest in New England and higher than the national average. Most of the kids are poor, live in rural Maine and about 25 percent are under age five.

“If we want Maine children of incarcerated parents to have a chance at success, we need to make sure that they are supported while they are separated from their parent. This starts by doing all that we can by maintaining the parent-child bond while a mom or a dad is incarcerated,” she says.

Ensuring in-person visitation is a simple way to reduce or mitigate the psychological damage to kids whose lives are affected by parental incarceration, Berkowitz says. Echoing that point, Maine State Prison inmate Anthony Normand wrote a letter to the DOC saying contact visits are important to everyone in a family. He said there’s a fear that DOC could soon move to end contact visits at the prison as well.

“Just today my wife and granddaughter came to visit me,” Normand wrote. “There is nothing like seeing a 3-year-old little girl as she comes running to you with open arms. How does taking away physical family contact ‘correct’ a person?”

Written comments on the proposed policy change are being accepted by the DOC until Aug. 30.