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The Battle for Contact Visits

Before the COVID-19 Pandemic shut the world down, visitation at South Carolina State prisons was something to look forward to; sitting across from your loved ones, playing games, holding hands, taking family pictures. It was 4-hours of real time with the people you love, with the one’s who were left behind the fences upon our incarceration. One could actually have meaningful conversation, listen to the stories and antics that have occurred since we have been physically unable to participate in life outside. Being able to hold your newborn or infant child for the duration of the visit, play UNO with your pre-teen and teenage children… all of these things were considered part of our rehabilitation process, promoted by policy and upheld by staff and administration. It was a time where things were simpler and visits more fulfilling.

Since the culmination of the Pandemic, to the knowledge of this writer, most states have gone back to in-person, contact visitation. South Carolina has now deemed the visitation dividers mandatory for all male Level III prisons in order to “limit the introduction of contraband into the institution,” as if the contraband coming into the prisons comes directly from visitation (which they know it does not). The dividers are what we endured in county jails: a plexi-glass partition that separated you from your visitors. Only here, you don’t get the convenience of a phone to use to have a conversation… you are forced to communicate through a six-inch vent hole, which is problematic to hear through on a day when you are the ONLY person in visitation. You can imagine that when there are 15 residents and 30 visitors attending, hearing your loved one speak is absolutely impossible.

At this institution, all visitors, staff, and volunteers must go through something similar to what you go through at the airport: a body-scanner. This scanner is essentially an X-Ray machine. It is accurate enough to see everything inside of the body: if you’ve swallowed a large item or are holding something in your mouth, it is visible on this scanner. It can actually see when someone has an excess of water around the knee area! The excuse that this institution in particular is using to keep using the partitions is invalid. So, they tell us that “visitation is considered a privilege and not a guaranteed right,” using the “security and safety of the institution” as their reason to continue utilizing these dividers… as if it is not solely within their power to uphold the safety and security of the institution by simply doing their jobs.

Everyone who has the privilege of visitation has earned that right. You only lose that privilege if you’ve violated policy and received a disciplinary charge, and that’s if they take visitation privileges away for whatever it is one did to receive an infraction. The man writing this article has never received a disciplinary in the 5+ years he has been incarcerated, yet I am still being kept from meaningful time with the people I love. I have begun the grievance process, grieving the use of dividers where elderly people suffer – many refuse to visit their loved ones because of how difficult it is to hear. The policy states that the South Carolina Department of Corrections has a responsibility to provide an adequate area for families and residents to visit each other. The current situation in the male Level III institutions in South Carolina Department of Corrections is not what Webster’s considers “adequate.”

They argue that we are to follow Policy in every area of our incarceration, yet they decide which policies to abide by when it suits them. The battle has begun to use their policy against them, and this writer implores the readers to do the same. If Policy says that visitation will be held from 8 am – 12 pm and 1 pm – 5 pm, then that’s what the institution is supposed to abide by, not the meager 2 hours our visits have been reduced to. Policy states that the dividers are only to be used in RHU (Restrictive Housing Unit) or on Death Row, not for General Population. It is up to us to really read and pay attention to the “clear and plain meaning” (the words right and privilege are very close in meaning when you look at them) of the policy, because that is our only recourse when grieving situations that affect us. Getting our grievance’s heard by the Administrative Law Court, making these limitations a violation of our state-created liberty interest (which is sometimes difficult to do in certain situations), is what it takes for change to happen. And it can’t be just one man in the fight. There must be unity with all the men inside, as well as having our family members complain to Headquarters.

Each step in the grievance process is necessary to achieve a desired outcome; the problem is we see it as useless because, in the end, they will do what they want anyway… right? WRONG! That is the wrong attitude to have because that attitude is what keeps us oppressed. I miss my children. They already live 5 hours away and I rarely see them because of the distance. It isn’t right that the only time I get with them is 2 hours of asking, “What did you say? I couldn’t hear you...” I hope to hear that more men are taking up the call to fight for our right to in-person, contact visits. I won’t stop until changes are made. Is it worth it to you to do the same?


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