Prison Policy Initiative Report: Distant Lockups Further Erode Family Ties

Back in the lock-'em-up frenzy of the 1990s, the Colorado Department of Corrections became increasingly reliant on private prison operators to stash its excess supply of felons. Those private companies tended to build their McPrisons in small towns on the eastern plains, far from the occupants' families, promising to hire locally and boost a struggling, fading agrarian economy. As the overcrowding became more severe, the DOC also began shipping inmates out of state, to private lockups in Texas and Mississippi, with disastrous results.

In recent years, with crime rates and the prison population in modest decline, the state has been able to keep its miscreants in-state and, in many cases, house them in less remote facilities. That's good news on several levels; according to a new study by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, the relationship between declining prison populations and close-to-home incarceration is more than a casual one. Not surprisingly, the study found that the greater the distance, the less likely that family members will visit a loved one in prison. And family connections and support have long been a strong indicator of whether a prisoner is going to be able to successfully transition  to the community or end up back behind bars. 

"Locking people up far from home has the unfortunate but strong effect of discouraging visits," the study's authors report. "We found that among incarcerated people locked up less than fifty miles from home, half receive a visit in a month, but the portion receiving visits falls as the distance from home increases."

The greater the haul, the greater the fall-off in visitation. Here's a chart showing what happens after you hit the hundred-mile mark:

Prison visits are daunting even under the best of circumstances; as we've noted, some jails and prisons are now pushing costly video visitation arrangements as a more "convenient" alternative to an in-person visit.  But keeping felons within a two-hour drive of loved ones can be a way to keep hope alive — even if the closure of more remote prisons has pretty much canceled out the grand promises once made to towns such as Walsenburg and Fort Lyon about how you can build an economy on the prison business. 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast