New policy restricts visits at New Hampshire prisons

  • This Friday, June 17, 2016, photo, shows the guard tower at the New Hampshire state prison in Concord, N.H. Despite added security methods, prison officials say they are seeing more drugs being smuggled into the state's prisons. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Monitor staff
Published: 1/22/2017 12:08:01 AM

A hug can be a longing embrace between a child and parent separated by prison walls, or the mechanism used by visitors to pass illicit drugs to an inmate.

A quick kiss can serve the same purpose. A small amount of drugs concealed within a deflated balloon, also called a “plug,” can easily be slipped from one mouth to another in the visiting rooms of New Hampshire’s three prisons in Berlin, Concord and Goffstown.

These close interactions are two of the ways drugs are being passed undetected from the streets to inmates’ cells, officials say. Prisoners swallow the drugs toward the end of a visit and retrieve them soon after, often by self-induced vomiting.

In an effort to curb the behavior, the state Department of Corrections is implementing a new policy that will take effect at all facilities Jan. 31. On that day, a long embrace will be replaced by a three-second hug, and kisses will no longer be permitted between inmates and their loved ones. Those inmates who fail to comply with the new policy will have their visits immediately terminated, and risk losing out on future visits, according to Commissioner William Wrenn.

Inmates can hold hands with their visitors, but only on top of a table where visible. They also must maintain physical space between each other during visits, although young children are still permitted to sit on their incarcerated father’s or mother’s lap, said Jeff Lyons, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

All vending machines and board games will be removed from the three prisons’ visiting rooms. That’s because inmates are using gaming boards and snack food to conceal contraband.

These conditions will be in place at visiting rooms only, meaning events sponsored by the department’s Family Connections Center will not be affected, Lyons said. Incarcerated parents accepted into the program earn “perks,” such as video visits with their children and the chance to record books to CD. However, those parents use the same visiting rooms as the general population.

The new policy will take effect just weeks after four men in the state’s correctional system overdosed, one of them fatally on Jan. 6. Corrections officials are still not saying how three men at the Concord prison got access to illicit drugs, or what took the life of 48-year-old Michael Robert Cullen at the Calumet Transitional Housing Unit in Manchester. Lyons said officials are waiting on toxicology results.

The department’s decision to clamp down on visitation between inmates and their families is part of a broader effort by corrections officials and lawmakers to stop the active drug trade inside prison facilities. Lyons said the department had been considering changes to the visitation policy prior to the overdoses, but that the incident prompted a more immediate response.

While no one has denied the need for the state to respond to the drug issue, the latest policy changes are being met with some resistance from former inmates and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. Both groups are concerned about the lasting effect these types of policies could have on family bonds.

“I think it’s horrible,” said former inmate Adam Carmody, 32, of Concord, who was released from state custody in May. “You’re punishing the majority of the population.”

Carmody, who was sentenced to four to 15 years on burglary charges, recalled playing board games, such as Clue, Battleship, Chutes and Ladders, and Stratego, with his young son, Liam. He said he couldn’t imagine other fathers not being able to do that, or being able to share a snack from the vending machine with their children.

Former inmate Amanda Mitchell, 39, of Keene said if she was an 8-year-old girl prevented from hugging her mom for more than three seconds, she would feel she did something wrong and was being punished. She said she agrees that the department of corrections needs to take steps to curtail the drug problem, but that restricting visitations on inmates with children is the wrong approach.

“I didn’t want to be around drugs, so if I was in there right now, I would appreciate this. I not only didn’t want to be around it, but I didn’t want my children visiting me in close proximity to any of it,” said Mitchell, who served 18 months for credit card fraud.

On the other hand, she said, officials are trying to address the problem in a way that’s revictimizing a group of children who have already been through so much.

“I feel like the department of corrections owes the children of inmates some answers. There has to be some resolution for children of these inmates who officials say they don’t want to come into the system,” she said, noting that board games and snacks are children’s coping mechanisms during visits.

Researchers and clinicians agree that visitation between children and their incarcerated parent is important because it allows families to rebuild relationships and strengthen bonds, according to Children of Incarcerated Parents: Theoretical, Development, and Clinical Issues, a book published in 2010.

Family Connections Program Administrator Kristina Toth and University of New Hampshire professor Kerry Kazura, who helped create the center, wrote a chapter addressing the need for parenting programs in prisons. They say crowded visiting rooms that aren’t kid-friendly hinder connections, but they also note that prison administrators must weigh the benefits of visits with security issues.

To help cut back on the contraband, the state has approved $2 million for full-body X-ray scanners that could screen staff, inmates and visitors. The scanners will likely replace existing metal detectors in the hopes of catching drugs and other contraband hidden in people’s clothing or within their bodies.

Mitchell said she fears what’s next if the visitation policy doesn’t result in a noticeable reduction in the amount of drugs being introduced into the state’s prisons. She continues to strongly oppose a decision by the department of corrections in 2015 not to allow inmates to receive greeting cards, drawings and stationery with stickers. Those items had been used to conceal drugs, largely Suboxone, in the mail, officials said.

The ACLU is challenging the mail policy in a civil lawsuit it brought against the department of corrections in federal court. The organization argues the ban infringes on the free speech rights of families with loved ones in prison.

Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette said he could not comment in depth on the new visitation policy, but noted that the ACLU is looking at it closely.

In an emailed statement, he wrote: “This policy bars one of the few acts of intimacy that enables a family member – including a child – to express love and affection for an inmate. Maintaining familial bonds is critical to enabling an inmate to successfully re-enter society. This policy will have an impact on practically every inmate and we will examine it carefully.”

Wrenn wrote in a memo to correctional staff, inmates and the public, that the flow of illicit drugs into the prisons poses series safety and security concerns, and that there’s been an increase in violence related to drug use.

“While I appreciate and understand the importance of being able to visit with your family and friends, it is our responsibility to protect the safety of all inmates, as well as DOC staff and the public,” he said. “It is unfortunate that some individuals want to continue their criminal ways by undermining our best efforts to keep you all safe.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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