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YLS Students Collaborate with Corrections Directors to Examine Prison Visitation Policies Nationwide

At the end of October, current and past Yale students spoke at the annual conference of the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), presenting their recent research to the directors of all the state and federal Departments of Corrections. Their paper, part of a Yale Law School Liman Program research project, could help lead the way to significant reforms of prison visitation policies. 

Prison Visitation Policies: A Fifty State Survey summarizes the findings from the first-ever comprehensive survey of prison visitation policies. The paper, researched and written by Chesa Boudin ’11, Trevor Stutz ’12, and Aaron Littman ’14, under the supervision of Hope Metcalf and Judith Resnik, explores how prison administrators exercise their discretion to prescribe when and how prisoners may have contact with friends and family.

The paper grows out of a collaboration between the Liman Public Interest Program and ASCA, which includes the directors of prisons in the states and the federal system. The research owes a debt to Ashbel T. (“A.T.”) Wall III, a Yale Law School graduate and ASCA’s current president. A.T., who worked as a parole officer after graduating summa cum laude from Yale College before returning to Yale to obtain his law degree, heads Rhode Island’s Department of Corrections and is the longest-serving state corrections director in the nation. A.T. came back to the Law School in March 2010 for the Liman Colloquium, Imprisoned, where he joined more than 400 students, practitioners, and scholars to discuss the issues of incarceration. Since then, A.T. has participated in the Liman Workshop and has helped to launch a series of projects with ASCA and the Liman Program.

The Visitation Project focuses on how prisons regulate, limit, discourage, or encourage visitation. Mounting evidence shows that strong social ties reduce recidivism, and thus visitation policies can be an important means to aid individuals while incarcerated and upon release. Yet many of the policies of prisons on how to visit inmates are inaccessible – to visitors as well as to researchers. ASCA worked with the Liman students to help identify the rules in each jurisdiction. ASCA helped the authors track down difficult-to-find policy documents and circulated drafts of the survey to enable state departments of corrections to review the discussions for accuracy.

The survey reports on the results, including the range of policy decisions made. For example, some systems permit overnight visits with children, while others do not. Some have pioneered “virtual” visits. A few have unusual restrictions, such as the requirement that English only be spoken in the visitation room. By looking at all fifty states, the Liman Project enables comparative analyses that inform not only academics but also regulators and administrators of prisons interested in implementing reforms.

The paper and data set are available here.