The Mississippi Department of Corrections has postponed the policy change after drawing rebuke from family members and advocates, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported Tuesday. The new rule, which would limit visits to only immediate family members, was supposed to begin Sept. 1 but was then delayed until Sept. 10. It is now postponed indefinitely.
A spokesperson for MDOC did not respond to a request for comment from The Marshall Project.
Family and friends of Mississippi state prisoners were surprised and alarmed by a new policy announced Wednesday that bans all but immediate family members from visiting. According to a memo posted in state facilities, “this excludes ALL friends, pastors girlfriends, fiancés, cousins, nephews, nieces aunts uncles, in-laws and anyone else.”
The policy drew attention on social media when Blake Feldman, advocacy coordinator for criminal justice reform for the Mississippi chapter of the ACLU, tweeted a photo of what looked like a memo from corrections officials announcing the change. It said that only parents, children, siblings, spouses, grandparents and grandchildren would be allowed to visit prisoners. The memo was dated Aug. 31 and said the policy would go into effect the next day.
In a statement, the Mississippi ACLU said: "We have been contacted by family members who would be impacted, we have reviewed the policy, and we have serious concerns regarding its legality. We are considering all options.”
Feldman said he learned of the change when someone visiting a state prison took a photo of it posted on a bulletin board and emailed it to him. He said a fiancé of one Mississippi prisoner called the prison facility where her partner was held and was told the ban was an agency-wide rule starting today. “There was no advance warning at all. It’s pretty bizarre and arbitrary narrowing,” Feldman said.
Grace Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, told the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss., that the change was prompted by an unspecified security violation. "Upon completion of the investigation, we will consider re-evaluating the policy. Visitation this weekend will not be affected," Fisher told the paper.
Prisoner rights advocates were dismayed by the order, saying it would isolate inmates and hurt their chances of a successful re-entry after prison.
“Consider all of the prisoners who have no immediate family members alive or still supporting them,” advocate Carolyn Esparza, who chairs the international prisoner’s family conference, wrote in an email. “Preparation for re-entry should include building outside community contacts, many of whom would like to actually meet the people they will be supporting upon re-entry.” Others noted that studies show more visits while in prison reduces the risk of recidivism.
Prison visits across the country has been curbed recently in other ways, through a cutback in conjugal visits, the move towards video (rather than in-person) visits, or the denial of physical contact. A 2013 survey by the Yale Law and Policy Review of all 50 states’ policies found that several states limit the number of non-family visitors, but none banned them outright.
“Prisons have a lot of discretion, but it’s not unlimited. I’ve never seen a restriction this draconian,” said David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project for the ACLU. “It is, in my experience, entirely unprecedented.”