Texas prisoner Joe Jackson’s family has visited him in five states over the past 18 years of his incarceration.
“The Bureau of Prisons says that they encourage strong family ties,” Jackson, who’s been imprisoned for almost two decades on a drug conspiracy conviction, tells me. “But they keep you 500 miles or further from home. As much as gas is, it’s hard to maintain any relationship.” He’s now divorced; his friends have slipped away. Jackson is still tight with his daughter and mother, but in order to maintain that closeness, they’ve struggled to scrap together the funds to travel as far as 1,100 miles to spend a few hours across a table from Joe. Their family photos are all taken around tables like this, with Joe in his prison khakis. This will be their mode of family connection for as far in the future as one can fathom — Joe is incarcerated for life.
Along with the inherent isolation that imprisonment brings, this broken geography fractures many of the families of the US’ 1.6 million state and federal prisoners, leading Jeremy Travis, President of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to dub prisons “a modern version of the slave auction block.” Most prisoners’ families grapple with poverty and can’t afford to travel far or often — or in some cases, ever. The “auction block” analogy is all the more sobering given that a hugely disproportionate number of prisoners are black.
Though the federal Bureau of Prisons states that it “attempts” to place prisoners “within a 500-mile radius of their release residence,” no hard regulations (and thus, no accountability) exist. For impoverished families, 500 miles can prove a prohibitive distance.
On the state prison front, the placement situation is not much rosier. As prison populations have ballooned, many states have responded to overcrowding by shipping inmates off to private prisons, often across state lines. Both for-profit prisons and publicly run prisons (though the latter are more likely to remain in-state) tend to be located in remote, low-cost rural areas, wherever the cheapest land is. In-state prisons house inmates from all over the state without regard for prisoners’ proximity to home. In large states, even an in-state visit may well require a steeply priced drive and an overnight stay. (For example, many of those incarcerated in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison hail from Los Angeles — nearly a 12-hour drive, one way.)
The problem of distance is particularly grave for incarcerated people with kids, which is most of them: A majority of prisoners, both male and female, have minor children. One in 40 American kids has a parent in prison, and for black kids, it’s 1 in 15. For many children, this incarceration means they simply won’t be seeing their parents: Most kids aren’t able to visit at all, and the prison’s distance from home is a key predictor of the probability of a visit.
In a study of minimum-security male prisoners in Utah, 65 percent reported zero visits from their partner or spouse (a giant number even considering the portion that may prefer not to visit). Over the distance, relationships are strained, and often decimated.
The impact of isolative geographic practices reaches beyond incarcerated people and their families. In an Urban Institute study, 71 percent of former prisoners said that family support was crucial in helping them avoid re-offense upon release. Even the Bureau of Prisons itself has acknowledged (in words, that is) the importance of these bonds by stating that incarcerated people “who maintain ties with their families have reduced recidivism rates.”
Recidivism’s not a perfect measure of effectiveness; “success” would be better determined by whether those being released are able to pursue fulfilling, happy, safe lives that contribute to the good of humanity. But it does tell us a bit about whether released prisoners have been able to move past the circumstances that led to their incarceration. Currently, recidivism rates clock in between 40 and 75 percent. As Joe Jackson writes to me, “If you have no support when you get out, the chances are you’ll come back.”
When it comes down to it, while all forms of incarceration breed disconnection—even the closest-to-home prison placements cut people off from their families and communities, sequestering them both physically and psychologically—long-distance placements crystallize one of the core problems at the heart of the prison system. Incarceration severs family connection, one of the strongest incentives to building healthier, more fulfilling, safer lives and communities.
Maya Schenwar is the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better and the editor-in-chief of Truthout.