Californians With Family in Prison Inspire Legislation to Remove Barriers to Visitation

People impacted by incarceration championed bills this session to limit when visits can be blocked and reduce the exorbitant cost of sharing meals with loved ones in prison.

Victoria Valenzuela   |    June 10, 2024

Zoe Suares visiting her father in 2021 after not seeing him for more than a year. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Suares)

The 15-month stretch when California halted prison visits due to the pandemic was one of the toughest periods for Sandra Suares and her family. And so she vividly remembers the joy of that first visit back to see her husband inside the California City Correctional Facility in the summer of 2021, after the state resumed visitation. 

Suares and Zoe, the couple’s then-three-year-old daughter, left home early enough that morning to see the sun rise during the two and a half hour drive to the facility. When they arrived to check in at the prison entrance, Suares and Zoe removed their shoes and jackets, lifted up their shirts to show guards their waistbands, and walked through a metal detector before proceeding to the visiting room.

Zoe hadn’t seen her incarcerated father since around the time she turned a year old, but she remembered his face from a photo she carries around with her in a ziplock bag, and recognized his voice from their frequent phone calls. Her father called out to her—“Zoe, mamas!”—as she entered the visiting room before scooping her up in his arms. During the rest of the visit, they drew together, read the bible, played with a deck of Trolls-themed Uno cards, and shared a meal from vending machines. Now that Zoe can visit almost every weekend, this has become her normal routine with her father. 

“Having to raise her by myself without her seeing him was one of the most difficult challenges that I had to face,” Suares told Bolts. “So when she got to see him again, I’ll never forget how she ran to him.” Being separated “was one of the hardest things that happened to them,” Suares added. “They had to rekindle their relationship, and so she would sit right next to her father, and they would share a meal.”

Every Friday through Sunday, families with loved ones in California prisons can sit across from each other to talk, play board games and choose from a selection of exorbitantly priced vending machine food during visits that usually last between two and six hours. But even though visitation is a lifeline for incarcerated people and can be a critical factor for rehabilitation, families often face barriers when visiting loved ones in prison. 

California changed visitation from a right to a privilege in the mid-1990s to give correctional officers more control over prison activities. Prison staff can block visits for incarcerated people at their discretion, including for allegations of misconduct unrelated to visitation. State officials may also restrict visits at their choosing; for instance, a budget revision California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed last month calls for reducing visits from three to two days per week in the state’s high-security prisons. 

People who visit incarcerated family members may also be ordered to submit to a strip search based on an officer’s suspicions and blocked from visits if they refuse. 

Suares is the founder and executive director of Jesse’s Place, an organization that advocates for incarcerated family members. She’s part of a larger Coalition for Family Unity in California that has sponsored legislation to reduce barriers to visitation. The bills they have proposed this year, Assembly Bills 2959 and 2709, aim to limit the reasons for which prison staff can block visits, codify three days of visits per week into state law, and lower the sky-high cost for vending machines in visitation rooms. 

The state Assembly overwhelmingly approved both bills in May. They now sit in the Senate Public Safety Committee.

Lawrence Cox, interim director of the Coalition for Family Unity, says the reforms are needed to protect and emphasize the importance of visitation and family connections as a rehabilitative apparatus for those in prison.

“There’s no rehabilitation if you can’t restore and rebuild bonds between family members and their communities,” Cox told Bolts. “Visitation can help a parent who’s estranged from their kids to have an opportunity to still be a part of raising them and building that bond.”

Prisons as a “captive audience”

During their first visit back, the Suares family sat at a children’s table for arts and crafts, eating popcorn and chips from the vending machines as cartoons played on the television.

To buy food and drinks from vending machines, the only meal option available during the hours-long visits, people visiting family members in California prisons are allowed to bring up to $70 in cash per day, plus an additional $40 per child—a sign of the significant markups they face. Prices for snacks, ice cream and other frozen goods like pizzas and burritos can be two to three times the cost in most local stores, according to the Coalition for Family Unity. While a single frozen cheeseburger might cost $1.25 at the store, it could be anywhere from $7 to $14 in a prison vending machine, depending on the vendor and the facility, according to the coalition.

As such, vending-machine meals can compound the financial strain that comes with visiting family members in lockup. Most families must travel far and end up spending hundreds of dollars on gas, motel rooms, and sometimes even flights in order to visit. Advocates with incarcerated family members estimate that families in California spend at least $435 in travel costs for a weekend visit. 

Suares says she often limits what she eats when visiting so there’s enough money for her daughter and husband to share meals. Sometimes they have to miss a weekend visit in order for her to pay rent. “When she would start crying that she wanted to see her dad, I would do my best to get there. But then the money was even shorter,” Suares said. “We would have to sacrifice somehow.”

In addition to costs related to visiting, families also typically pay high commissary prices and send care packages in order to provide basic hygiene or food products for loved ones in prison, as incarcerated people typically make less than a dollar. Private companies that contract with prisons and jails around the country can typically charge whatever they want because people who are incarcerated and their families can’t go anywhere else. 

Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit organization fighting to end exploitation by prison industries, says that it is past time to curb predatory and exploitative business models that exist inside of prisons and jails. She applauded the efforts by California advocates impacted by incarceration, which is part of a larger groundswell of activism around cutting the high costs families pay to maintain connections with incarcerated loved ones. In recent years, advocates have pressured several states and large jail systems to mandate free communications for incarcerated people. In California, Suares and others impacted by incarceration helped pass laws that took effect last year mandating free prison phone calls and reducing price-gouging for commissary items. 

“It is unconscionable to prey on marginalized people as a captive audience who can’t go anywhere else, with the most excessive prices for products that we all enjoy on the outside at largely better prices and better quality,” Tylek said.

Zoe Suares with her father during their last visit before the pandemic hit and prisons across the country halted visitation. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Suares)

AB 2959, one of this year’s bills sponsored by the coalition of people impacted by incarceration, aims to reduce food costs in visiting rooms by restricting prices to the average market retail price in the community in which the facility is located. The bill also has language encouraging the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to provide “affordable, fresh, and nutritious food items in prison vending machines”; currently, the most available options consist of candy, salty snacks, sodas, and frozen food.

Angel Rice visits her husband, who is currently serving a life sentence in a California prison, nearly every weekend. But Rice, co-founder of the nonprofit advocacy organization Empowering Women Impacted by Incarceration, which advocates for incarcerated family members and is also part of the Coalition for Family Unity, said her husband typically can’t keep his plant-based diet if he wants to share a meal with her during visits. The visiting room at the facility where he’s incarcerated often doesn’t have fresh fruit, but sometimes has simple salads, which might cost $3 in a grocery store but go for $10 inside the prison walls. So he often resorts to a cheese pizza or grilled cheese during the visit. 

“He doesn’t eat cheese, but he’s forced to eat it because that’s what’s available, instead of having to resort to just eating chips and candy for six hours,” Rice said.

Suares and Rice, who have for years helped advocate for reform legislation to reduce barriers to visitation and excessive pricing, began working on AB 2959 after seeing the stress that spending hundreds of dollars on vending machine food adds to families already struggling with travel costs to visit loved ones. 

“You’re sitting there for six hours trying to feed you and your loved one off $70, and because of the pricing, it’s really not affordable,” Rice said. “When people are sentenced, the families are also left behind to do the time along with them. The families are the ones who provide the financial support, the mental support, the emotional support.”

Restoring family connections

In addition to advocating for what they call the “vending machine” bill, the coalition of advocates impacted by incarceration are also pushing for AB 2709, which would remove barriers faced by families during the visiting application process, such as denial of visiting for omissions or errors on visiting applications. The bill also places limitations on when California prison officials can take away an incarcerated person’s visiting privileges. 

Currently, visitation can be taken away by California prison staff at their discretion. Cox said that prison staff often blocks visits for incarcerated people over allegations or conduct that has nothing to do with visitation. “CDCR staff arbitrarily abuse their discretion to deny or take a person’s visit simply because a person has done something on the yard, gotten a write up on the yard or some other type of infraction,” Cox said. 

Under the new bill, prison staff wouldn’t be able to block someone’s visits unless it is a disciplinary measure for a security violation specifically related to visitation—such as possessing contraband or committing violence during a visit. 

A CDCR spokesperson told Bolts that the agency does not comment on proposed legislation in response to questions for this story. The spokesperson also provided a statement saying the agency “recognizes visiting is an important way to build and maintain family and community ties and is a powerful aid in rehabilitation,” and that it is “dedicated to supporting and continuously improving visiting programs.”

The proposed legislation also aims to eliminate strip searches of children during visit processing and restrict it to a last resort for adults. Denying a strip search could cost someone their visit. Last summer CDCR made it easier to justify a strip search by changing their standard from “reasonable cause” to “reasonable suspicion.” 

The CDCR representative told Bolts that unclothed body searches are used only when all other contraband interdiction efforts have been exhausted. To be searched, the CDCR representative said the subject of the search must agree by signing a form and the reason for the search must also be documented on the form.

“All people who enter institutional grounds are subject to a search of their person, private property, and vehicles for contraband and illegal drugs,” the spokesperson said. “In some cases, a determination may be made that an unclothed body search is necessary.” 

When a visitor has a child with them, they often end up strip searched in front of the child, according to Cox. “Children can be subjected to this, too, and they have,” he said. “This practice has always targeted women of color,” he added. “There are some facilities and staff that overly utilize the rules … subjecting them to these inhumane and deplorable cavity searches. A lot of times nothing is found.”

AB 2709 also calls for incarcerated people at all California prisons to be allowed three days of visitation per week. That would codify into law a change the CDCR made last summer, when the agency expanded visits from two days to three days in all facilities. Newsom recently sought to reel back that policy, releasing a revised budget proposal that calls for cutting the third day of visiting in the state’s high-security facilities. 

When Sandra Suares brought her daughter, Zoe, to meet her father for the first time. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Suares)

Impacted families say Newsom’s proposed rollback underscores the urgency of the legislation. “This bill, 2709, seeks to codify that exactly for these reasons, so another administration, or the same administration wouldn’t come back and try to take that third day of visiting,” Cox said. “It’s another attack on our ability to restore the visiting apparatus, as far as allowing it to be a real rehabilitative mechanism and not a punitive mechanism.”

Decades of social science research have shown that strong family ties decrease recidivism and improves mental health. Cox said visits are also key to helping impacted children who feel the absence of their parents. Nationally, around 1.25 million children have incarcerated parents, but two-thirds of parents haven’t received visits from them due to restrictive visit policies and financial or logistical barriers.

Cox said budget accommodations shouldn’t be made at the cost of affecting rehabilitation programs that help decrease recidivism. He says that when advocates approached CDCR with concerns about the impact to incarcerated people who would lose a day of visits each week, the agency responded by saying the reduction would encourage positive behavior by providing more incentive for people to move to lower-level prisons. 

“It was disheartening,” Cox added. “We fought so hard and so long to get this third day of visiting at all facilities, because we prioritize and we lift up building those family bonds. That’s rehabilitation.”

To Suares, weekend visits feel like a getaway—her husband gets to be away from the same prison walls he sees everyday, and she gets to raise her daughter with her partner before heading back to life as a single mom. 

But leaving is always hard. After they said goodbye, Suares’ daughter cried for her father while clinging onto the picture they drew together during the visit. “I want my pa,” Suares recalled her saying. When her daughter fell asleep in her carseat, Suares listened to music during the drive back. After a while, she turned it off to enjoy the silence before returning to single motherhood.

“I just hope for change because at the end of the day, they were given the sentence but it’s like we’re living that sentence also,” Suares said. “Us families need to be humanized and treated with respect. I just want things to be better.”

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