Why prison visits should be encouraged, not limited

A Mississippi State Penitentiary guard checks a car leaving the state prison at Parchman.
A Mississippi State Penitentiary guard checks a car leaving the state prison at Parchman. AP File

The Mississippi Department of Corrections should drop its plan to limit who can visit inmates at its prisons.

MDOC quickly decided to delay plans to restrict visitation to immediate family — spouses, children, stepchildren raised before age 12, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, grandchildren or documented surrogate parents.

Good. MDOC had the best of intentions — to crimp the flow of contraband into prisons — but in this case, the solution is worse than the problem.

For starters, MDOC wanted to prevent pastors from visiting inmates. Yes, pastors.

We doubt security is so lax in a Mississippi prison that someone could pose as a pastor and smuggle cigarettes, drugs or weapons to an inmate. If so, that’s a security problem that calls for swift action to remedy.

Visitors are the inmates’ best connection to the community outside. And it’s that community that society will be relying on to keep the ex-convict on the straight and narrow after he or she is released.

The issue has been studied. As far back as 1972, researchers were finding a link between visitation and successful completion of parole. A 2011 study by the Minnesota DOC found visits by in-laws, clergy, siblings and fathers helped reduce recidivism.

“Any visit reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations, which reflects the fact that visitation generally had a greater impact on revocations,” the researchers concluded.

Consider the story of John Espinosa Nelson, a young man spiraling down the prison system who was saved by an aunt.

“All around me were nothing but (re-offenders) and excuses,” he told the Deseret News in 2012. “I had no reason to believe I wasn’t going to re-offend.

“The actions of my aunt were something that showed me that prison was just a fence around me. They gave me reason to have hope.”

That glimmer of hope tells us MDOC should encourage visitors to nurture connections to the outside world.

The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.