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Yale Law School’s Liman Program Research Helps to Produce Changes in Prison Visiting Policies

The Utah Department of Corrections has announced that, as of August 1, it will abandon its “English only” policy for visitors to prisoners in its system, as well as make other important reforms to facilitate visiting. 

Research by Yale students and faculty working in the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School helped provide the backdrop for this change. “Prison Visitation Policies: A Fifty State Survey," co-authored by Chesa Boudin ’11, Trevor Stutz ’12, and Aaron Littman ’14, provided the first comprehensive comparison of all fifty state prison systems and of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The study found that Utah was the only state to forbid inmates from speaking with visitors in languages other than English.

This research is complemented by a growing body of data on the important role that visitors play in prisons. Other studies have documented that inmates who receive regular visits are less likely to have disciplinary problems while in prison and have better chances of staying out of prison once released. See, e.g., Grant Duwe & Valerie Clark, Blessed be the Social Tie that Binds: The Effects of Prison Visitation on Offender Recidivism, 39 CRIM. JUST. POL’Y REV. 1436 (2012).

“Visitation policies have real life implications for the people in prison and their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives and friends. Research has shown that increasing access to visitation is related to decreased prison violence and lower recidivism rates, and helps to break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration. We are tremendously heartened by Utah's willingness to modernize its visitation policies. We look forward to working with other states across the country to do the same,” said Boudin.

As the Liman Report details, states vary widely in terms of both their rules on visiting and how easy it is for the public to find those policies. The study is part of an ongoing collaboration with the Association of State Corrections Administrators (ASCA), a national organization of the heads of corrections from each state and the federal system. ASCA asked its members to provide copies of their visiting policies to the Liman Program researchers, and welcomed the students’ presentation last October at its annual meeting. An article based on the report, Prison Visitation: A Fifty State Survey, is forthcoming in Volume 32 of the Yale Law & Policy Review. Another Liman Report, which surveyed policies on the use of administrative segregation, degrees of isolation imposed, and possibilities of visiting, can be viewed here.

This September, the Liman Workshop’s topic is Incarceration, to be co-taught by Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor of Law, Hope Metcalf, the Liman Program Director; Megan Quattlebaum, the Senior Liman Fellow in Residence; and A.T. Wall, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections and a 1980 YLS graduate.

As the New York Times reported on July 21, the art world has turned its focus to what people see when using the visiting rooms in prisons. Yet relatively little is known about how hard it is to visit and about how people in prison stay connected with those on the outside. “With more than 2.3 million Americans behind bars, it’s essential to understand how prisons operate. We appreciate ASCA’s cooperation and the opportunities to engage diverse perspectives,” said Hope Metcalf, the Liman Program’s Director. “The Visiting Study is an important step in the direction of bringing prisons into public view. We have so much more to learn.”