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A Kansas prison cut visits to accommodate more families. Some of those families are upset

Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service

The Lansing prison is reducing the number of visitation hours each week. It says that will allow more families to visit because the demand for visitation is so high.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Indira Huerta went two months without seeing her husband in the Lansing Correctional Facility. She said he struggled during that time away from her.

“He felt more isolated,” she said. “He felt seriously depressed.”

They made more phone calls and shared thoughts over a prison messaging app. But nothing compares to seeing each other face to face. That communication isn’t free and can cost more than $100 a month depending on usage.

Families can schedule visits through an online system, but the slots fill up so fast that anyone who doesn’t schedule time quickly enough gets shut out.

 Heidi Louis (right), visits her huabnd (upper middle) at the Lansing Correctional Facility.
Courtesy Heidi Louis
Heidi Louis (right), visits her huabnd (upper middle) at the Lansing Correctional Facility.

Prisons see family visits as critical ways both to improve inmate behavior and to maintain those ties so people adjust more easily to life when they’re released. To free up more slots, the state prison system cut the maximum visitation at Lansing from six hours a week to three hours a week.

Lansing, one of the largest prisons in the state, is the only prison seeing these cuts. The Kansas Department of Corrections has not publicly announced other visitation cuts.

Huerta had mixed reactions to the new visitation policy. She can now see her husband every weekend because more spots are available. But the new policy means less time with her husband and she says it will hurt families who travel long distances because they can spend as much time driving for a visit as they do actually on the visit.

David Thompson, spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said the change lets more people visit because more slots are available. Some people would schedule visits and not show up, meaning visiting hours basically went to waste.

KDOC also instituted a policy that would suspend visitation privileges for 30 days for someone who failed to show up twice in a 120-day period.

“The administration has received comments of approval from various families,” Thompson said via email.

But some families see the shift as another policy that isolates inmates and makes it harder to build a support system, something people rely on once released. Those families say visitation has become much harder in recent years, with fewer days and now fewer hours where they can see their loved ones.

Heidi Louis, whose husband is also at Lansing, was confused when the policy was first introduced. Louis and Huerta’s husbands are in different units, with one in maximum security and one in medium. Those two units have visitation on separate days. While Huerta fights for her spot in line, Louis doesn’t.

“Visit is never full,” Louis said. “Like never, never, never — I've never seen it full.”

Louis and Huerta are especially frustrated because they say the prison system isn’t thinking creatively to address visitation issues. If visits are full one day and empty the next, why not let families do visits on either day? And why not offer visits Monday through Friday?

KDOC said the days are limited because the visitation rooms have programs in them throughout the week.

Families said there could be valid reasons for the change, but the prison system lacks transparency and doesn’t make it clear why changes are being made.

Visitation reduces the odds of someone being locked up again. A 2011 study from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that more frequent visitation reduced the likelihood of being arrested again. The study also found that “any visit reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations.”

Louis said her husband used to get into trouble, but he has spent about a year without a write-up. That’s his longest streak in some time.

“(KDOC) says visitation is important to rehabilitation; it's important to stay in contact with the family,” she said. “But here, let’s make it as impossible as we possibly can to stay in touch.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

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Blaise Mesa