Bans on Holiday Cards and $30 Phone Calls—the Isolation of Prison

Incarceration always separates family members, but the approach in the United States is especially inhumane.
Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Dec 21, 2021

The way the United States separates people who are incarcerated from loved ones has always been harsh, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made an already stressful situation worse.

Since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, many of the nearly two million people incarcerated haven’t seen their loved ones—not even on a video call. And speaking with family members has also been made difficult by costly telephone calls and limited phone access. In facilities across the country, including one San Antonio jail, people who tested positive for the virus lost their phone “privileges.” At a time when jails and prisons should have been looking for ways to expand access to video and phone calls, some instead limited it, leaving families and friends worried and anxious about their loved ones.

Even pre-pandemic, rules and limitations around spending time with incarcerated loved ones were far from humane. Prisons commonly curtail visiting hours, and many facilities bar “contact visits,” with glass screens separating families and friends and preventing them from holding hands or hugging. Over the last few years, some facilities have even attempted to end in-person visits altogether and replace them with pricey video calls.

Jails and prisons don’t just make in-person visits needlessly difficult. Phone calls are expensive: in some places, a 15-minute in-state call can cost more than $30. Email is not readily accessible in most states, but where it is available, it often incurs a fee.

And many jails and prisons have in place a whole host of rules and prohibitions—like bans on holiday cards and physical mail—that are seemingly designed to make staying connected to loved ones difficult. (In some places, those who would still like to send cards and letters can use for-profit service providers like JPay to send digitized versions. Of course, they charge a fee.)

These needlessly cruel arrangements benefit private contractors and the prisons and jails that accept commissions. Ultimately, these policies and practices serve to cut people off from their support systems. They are dehumanizing and traumatizing for everyone involved. And research shows that this restrictive approach doesn’t help anyone.

In fact, people who maintain strong ties to their families and communities while incarcerated do better in prison and when they go home. In prison, that connection can make facilities safer by reducing violent incidents and easing stress and anxiety. And several studies show that those who maintain contact with their families are less likely to return to prison after release.

“It’s not rocket science that ripping people away from everyone who supports them is going to hinder them when they need to rely on that support when they go home, to stay safe and to stay free,” said Ryan Shanahan, director of the Restoring Promise initiative. A partnership between MILPA and Vera, the initiative works in six states to create housing units grounded in dignity for young adults in prison.

The way the prison system keeps families apart is also detrimental to the financial, psychological, and physical health of millions of people. Nearly half—45 percent—of people in the United States have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated. Before the pandemic, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one went into debt just paying for phone calls and visits. Concern over the well-being of loved ones in prison is a common and severe stressor. A 2021 study found that people with incarcerated loved ones have shorter life expectancies and poorer health than those who do not. Incarceration worsens health outcomes in our communities, and its impact is not confined to those who endure dire conditions behind prison walls. It is a public health crisis that extends far beyond those walls.

But some facilities have started doing things differently. Community and family partnerships are a critical component in Restoring Promise units, where families are actively engaged in the lives of their incarcerated loved ones. In Restoring Promise units in South Carolina, families can bring sheets and comforters for their loved ones. They get to see their rooms and share meals. In Connecticut, young adults share their goals and progress with their families during extended time together. Staff often join those conversations to answer questions or ask families for more specific support to help their loved one achieve a goal. In other prisons across the country, some visiting areas have designated play areas with toys for children.

And thousands of miles away, Norway’s Halden Prison has created a system grounded in dignity and the principle of normalization—meaning daily life inside prison walls is as similar as possible to life outside. Detention itself is the punishment, and that punishment should not extend beyond what is necessary for safety and security.

With those guiding principles, Halden has a separate cottage on the prison grounds that people who are incarcerated can reserve for weekends with their children. Time between incarcerated people and their children is organized around the best interests of the child, not what works best for the prison. In fact, each prison in Norway must have a staff member whose position is dedicated to child welfare. The purpose is clear: it’s about maintaining—even strengthening—family relationships, so that children do not suffer while a parent is incarcerated, and parents can transition more smoothly to life after incarceration. Financial support is also available to families who may not otherwise be able to travel to visit their loved ones in prison.

This is miles away, literally and figuratively, from the degrading conditions within U.S. prisons, where children often can’t even sit on their parents’ laps. Our prison system must center human dignity and help families and their incarcerated loved ones stay connected so they can thrive when they come home.