There’s an old maxim that behind every strong man stands a strong woman. The women of the San Quentin Inmate Family Council (IFC) are standing not behind but in the vanguard, keeping many men at San Quentin connected to their families.
IFC supports connections “between inmates and their families through improved communications, shared information, issue identification and problem resolution,” according to its mission.
The IFC meets quarterly with San Quentin’s Warden Ron Davis to discuss how to solve differences between correctional staff and incarcerated peoples’ visitors.
“The biggest challenges are that we are continually going over what’s already been established with the visiting room staff,” said Arieta Daoust, Chairperson of IFC. “One problem we thought we solved is the delay in starting visiting at exactly 0730.”
Daoust said when the visitor processing line gets long, a third computer is supposed to open up. But, that doesn’t always happen. She said when new staff are transferred into the visiting room they do not open the third computer which prolongs delays. They have to wait until the next warden’s meeting to bring up the new-old problem.
Sam Johnson, the chairman of the Men’s Advisory Council at San Quentin, said one of the main sources of inconsistent visiting room practices is the number of new officers continually assigned to the visiting room.
“When new staff arrives, they implement inappropriate policies because they don’t understand what the rules are,” Johnson said, talking about the recurrent challenges in the visiting room.
Another challenge is the delays in processing visitors, which causes frustration for incarcerated men and their families.
“My family waits an hour to get in,” said Borey “Peejay” Ai. His family has been visiting him at San Quentin for six years. “Then they wait another hour or two to get me into the visiting room.”
“It’s hell of discouraging,” Ai continued. “My sister hates coming up here. I don’t even want a visit sometimes because of what my mom and sister have to go through.”
Ai said he planned to have his family contact the IFC about future frustrations.
While the 2015 San Quentin Inmate Family Council minutes acknowledged that the officers working in the often short-staffed visiting room do their best individually to get processing done in a timely manner, the minutes also reflect solutions exist to minimize delays in visitor processing. This includes developing and implementing procedures when the X-ray machines break down, using all computers for visitor check-ins and additional training for visiting room staff.
Inconsistent policy implementation concerning attire is another source of frustration for incarcerated men and their families.
“It’s the discretion of the person processing the visitors. If they feel that clothes are inappropriate, even if the person has worn it 20 times before,” Daoust said. “It’s hard to set a consistent standard when each person has a different standard. If it’s OK this week, why is it not the next week? The clothes we wear are a lot more conservative than the free staffers who work at the prison.”
Vernon Britten, whose family visits him twice a month, told a similar story. He said the female members of his family often feel discouraged by what is permitted regarding dress policies.
“It makes it more difficult for my family to feel comfortable,” Britten said. “My mom is 77 years old, and one sergeant tells her that her pants are too tight. Come on, man, she’s 77 years old.”
Studies have found a correlation between improved family relationships and public safety.
There is a positive relationship between regular family visits and phone calls and reduced recidivism and re-entry success, according to a 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Some advocates of prison reform believe that an increase in successful re-entry will translate into three public benefits: more dollars in the economy from formerly incarcerated people joining the work force, fewer tax dollars spent on incarceration, and fewer cases of re-victimization.
Another study, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, examined the effects of parental incarceration on more than 5 million U.S. children. It found that having an incarcerated parent is as traumatic as domestic violence and divorce, but “families who were able to stay in regular contact were also more likely to report that family relationships became stronger.”
The San Quentin IFC continues to meet with Warden Davis to identify solutions to the problems incarcerated men and their families face.
The public can contact IFC by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
contributed to this story