Visitation is a critical lifeline for incarcerated people, yet some families say Texas prison officials ban them from seeing loved ones over petty or unproven claims of misconduct.

Locked Out

Visitation is a critical lifeline for incarcerated people, yet some families say Texas prison officials ban them from seeing loved ones over petty or unproven claims of misconduct.

Michael Barajas

Chris Gash

Rachel Rodriguez remembers her son Ruben being a very attached child. Even as Ruben got older and started getting into trouble, the mother and son remained close. “He was always just right there, right next to me,” she says. In 2013, when he was 20, Ruben went to prison on a 20-year sentence for a robbery. But Rodriguez considered herself lucky that he got sent to a lockup about an hour’s drive from her home in Corpus Christi. “I visited him every weekend, like religiously, because I wanted us to stay close while he was in there,” she says. “I thought we both needed that.”

Less than three years into the sentence, however, their communication came to an abrupt halt. After her last visit with him, in June 2016, corrections officers claimed they’d found contraband on Ruben and kicked Rodriguez off his list of approved visitors. Rodriguez, who was never charged or formally accused of any wrongdoing, has for years asked prison officials what she has to do to see her son again. Her only recourse has been sending letters to an internal review committee to appeal the ban every six months. The sole response she ever gets back is a boilerplate five-sentence letter with no explanation. “Just that same denial letter every time, that’s it,” she says. “At this point, I have no idea if they’ll ever let me see him again.”

Rachel Rodriguez with her son Ruben

Rachel Rodriguez with her son Ruben (center).  Courtesy Rachel Rodriguez

It’s unclear how many people are currently barred from visiting friends and family members in Texas prisons. Despite internal policies requiring wardens to track who they deny for visitation and after months of public information requests, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) said it could not tell me how many people are blocked, for how long, or for what reasons. An agency spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about its visitation policies and the complaints from families in this story.

Advocates for incarcerated people say that visitation problems are pervasive in Texas prisons. The Texas Inmate Families Association (TIFA) recently surveyed more than 100 members who had been banned from visiting loved ones for periods ranging from a few months to several years. Many don’t know why they were banned. Visitation was often suspended because of petty or unproven claims of misconduct by the inmate or visitor. About half of the survey respondents who reported being blocked from visits said their loved one was never charged or given a disciplinary case for wrongdoing.

Have you been affected by TDCJ’s visitation policies? Let us know.

Visitation is a critical lifeline for incarcerated people, and it also appears to have tangible benefits for public safety. While serving time in prison disrupts ties to community and relationships with family, research has shown that visits from loved ones can help maintain or even strengthen positive social bonds that help prevent criminal behavior during and after incarceration.

One 2016 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that visitation decreased post-release criminal offending by 26 percent, with even greater reductions for prisoners given conjugal and furlough visits. According to researchers, those results “may demonstrate that increasing the intimacy or ‘closeness’ of visitation is associated with decreased risk in recidivism.” A 2013 study of prisoners in Florida found that visits seemed to reduce overall levels of misconduct in lockup, with prisoners who are visited most frequently having the least infractions. (The study, however, showed fluctuations, with decreases in rule-breaking before visits and increases in misconduct afterward.) TDCJ’s own internal policies call visitation “an integral component of the rehabilitation process.”

“Just that same denial letter every time, that’s it. At this point, I have no idea if they’ll ever let me see him again.”

Despite years of appeals, Rodriguez says she doesn’t know why she’s still banned from visiting Ruben. He’s been in solitary confinement without access to phone calls for as long as she’s been banned from visiting him. She says four years of communicating only through letters has strained their relationship. “I feel like I don’t even really know my son anymore,” she says. “It’s been so long. He’s changed. I’ve changed.”

Still, Rodriguez gets as close to her son as she can, driving other family members to visit him some weekends. One prison made her wait in the parking lot, while another he’d been transferred to made her drive off the prison grounds entirely. “It hurts, but I’m OK with it because he gets to see other family and at least he knows I’m out there,” she says. “But it’s really hard to just sit there knowing he’s inside, knowing he’s right there but I can’t see him.”

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International standards for the treatment of prisoners call in-person visits a human right. However, in the United States, visitation is largely treated as a privilege. Court rulings since the 1970s have given corrections officials broad discretion to curtail visits in the name of safety and security, and in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that restrictions on visitation with a “rational relation” to prison management don’t violate inmates’ constitutional rights.

Michele Deitch, an expert on prison conditions who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, says that, as a result, prison policies often hinder communication rather than foster connections to the outside. “In this country, we do not see visitation as a human rights issue,” she says. “Anywhere else in the developed world, visitation is not just a privilege, it is a human right. It is not something that can just be cut out willy-nilly or because of some unproven allegations. It’s just taken so much more seriously elsewhere.”

While TDCJ policy allows for blocking visitors who knowingly violate prison rules, stories of people banned from visiting loved ones in prison for simple or seemingly silly mistakes are common. One person who responded to TIFA’s visitation survey said she’s been blocked from visiting her husband for nearly two years because he gave her a handout from the prison chapel during one visit—a violation of TDCJ’s rule that “offenders shall not pass items to other offenders or visitors.” Others reported being banned for months after corrections officers accused them of inappropriate dress or touching. Another person responding to the survey said he was banned from visiting his brother for nearly a decade after a corrections officer accused him of smelling like marijuana during a visit; TDCJ policy permits banning anyone who “appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol” during a visit. (Many respondents to TIFA’s survey didn’t respond to interview requests.)

“Anywhere else in the developed world, visitation is not just a privilege, it is a human right. It is not something that can just be cut out willy-nilly or because of some unproven allegations.”

The agency also allows officials to ban people who refuse a search, which is what got Gerardo Reyna’s wife, Edaena, kicked off his visitation list in March 2017. After officials searched her car and found nothing, Edaena asked if she could leave rather than submit to what she feared would be a more invasive search. “Visitation is a part of rehabilitation and is therapeutic for families,” Gerardo wrote in a complaint that TIFA shared with me. “Indefinite suspension of our visitation privileges without due process seems like cruel and unusual punishment.” (In a recent letter, Gerardo told me that officials restored his wife’s privileges this March thanks to help from TIFA.)

TDCJ says it imposes the “least restrictive protocol possible” for visitation, and agency policy states that prisoners cannot be punished by taking it away. Still, the agency gives individual wardens broad discretion over whom to block from visiting prisoners and for how long, and some family members say they’re being punished for misconduct they had nothing to do with.

Sandra Gonzales and her husband, Jessie, were kicked off their son Andrew’s visitation list last September, after officers caught him with pills he’d snuck back into prison after a stint in the hospital. “I would never jeopardize my parents,” Andrew wrote to me in a letter, insisting they had nothing to do with the pills.

Andrew says the weekly visits he used to have with his parents were important for his rehabilitation. “I worry a lot about my parents, and the impact that this has had on me has been affecting me mentally,” he wrote. “To be able to physically kiss and hug my parents was comforting for both myself and my parents.” Sandra says that being banned from visiting makes her feel like a prisoner too. “I’m being punished for something I didn’t do, for something I didn’t even know about,” she says.

Kasie Cantu with her husband, Juan.

Kasie Cantu with her husband, Juan.  Courtesy Kasie Cantu

In other cases, misunderstandings appear to be enough for someone to be banned. Last July, Kasie Cantu wanted to donate breakfast tacos to a class that was about to graduate from Homeward Bound, a reentry program run by a nonprofit that her husband, a seminary student and inmate, helped facilitate with a field minister at the Darrington Unit, south of Houston. Cantu consulted TDCJ’s guidelines to make sure that contacting a volunteer with the nonprofit wasn’t against the rules. It didn’t appear to be. Cantu checked with the volunteer about the idea for tacos, who then checked with a prison chaplain, who told them no.

Cantu says she told the volunteer thanks for trying, and thought that was the end of it. Days later, she learned her husband had been sent to solitary confinement pending the investigation of a disciplinary case.

On July 12, Cantu got a letter from TDCJ’s Director’s Review Committee, a panel of wardens and TDCJ administrators who are the central and final authority for all visitation restrictions and appeals at the agency. The letter accused Cantu of “establishing inappropriate contact” with a prison volunteer and “attempting to coerce her into bringing unauthorized food items into a correctional facility.” The review committee upheld the ban despite her appeals.

“It just snowballed into this crazy issue,” Cantu says. “In no shape or form did I threaten or coerce anybody.” Cantu says she’s horrified to be accused of something so serious but also confused that the allegation stuck despite her husband’s disciplinary case being dropped. “If they dismissed the case, then why am I still off his list?” Cantu has also asked TDCJ for evidence justifying her ban. “They don’t want to provide it, because it doesn’t exist.”

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Visitation restrictions took on new urgency among inmate family groups in Texas early this year as state prison officials passed new rules that some fear could make it easier to block people from visiting loved ones inside. The new rules, which ban greeting cards and expand drug-sniffing dog searches for visitors, are aimed at cracking down on contraband, despite the dubious reliability of drug dogs—and even though, as The Marshall Project recently reported, Texas prisoners claim that illicit goods largely flow in through prison staff.

Advocates for incarcerated families are especially alarmed by TDCJ’s new drug-dog policy—people can’t visit if a dog alerts, even if officers don’t find contraband—because they are concerned it could lead to even more people being banned from visitation lists based on unconfirmed suspicions. People were banned from visitation because of drug dogs even before the new policy. In August 2015, officials blocked Cynthia Ruiz from visiting her husband after drug dogs alerted and led officers to search her car before a scheduled visit—even though the search turned up nothing.

“One officer just kept saying that they had intel that we were doing things we weren’t supposed to do,” Ruiz says. She claims officers even made her pat down her 14-year-old daughter, who had joined for the visit. Seven months after appealing the ban, Ruiz was allowed to resume visits, but only through a glass window. Every six months she asks the Director’s Review Committee to reinstate contact visits, but each time receives the same denial letter.

“I’m being punished for something I didn’t do, for something I didn’t even know about.”

Families of incarcerated people have also asked Texas prison officials for clearer guidelines on banning visitation, graduated sanctions rather than a blanket ban for visitors who break prison rules, and a way for visitors to dispute the allegations made against them.

At a February meeting for the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, TIFA executive director Jennifer Erschabek urged board members to give families kicked off the list some sort of dispute resolution process to resolve visitation problems. “A lot of new families don’t have any expectation about what the rules are, the infractions, what to expect, what happens if they’re taken off the list, how long they’ll be off the list, or how to try and get back on,” Erschabek says. “Give them the evidence of what they’re being accused of and also a way to earn their way back onto the list.”

Advocates for prison reform say the complaints about visitation highlight the need for independent oversight of the Texas prison system, which could give people who feel they were wrongly banned from visiting imprisoned family members somewhere to turn when the appeals process breaks down.

When visits are interrupted, mitigating steps should be taken to keep prisoners connected to loved ones, says UT’s Deitch—whether through free or reduced-cost calls, video visitation, or no-contact visits. As of press time, visits were suspended for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic that started spreading across Texas in March. In response, TDCJ began giving prisoners two free calls per week and extended phone access to inmates in solitary confinement, who are typically banned from making calls. While the agency had aimed to pilot video visitation at several prisons in early March, those plans have since been put on hold.

Families with loved ones in prison say they don’t want contraband behind bars, but some say they feel unfairly caught in the middle of the agency’s efforts to crack down on smuggling. Kandyce Livingston says officials removed her from her husband’s visitation list in March 2019 after a phone call in which they discussed the latest scuttlebutt: an inmate had claimed a guard was smuggling tobacco into the unit through tampons. Livingston insists it was nothing more than gossip, but both she and her husband, Jackie Deason, were accused of conspiring to bring in contraband.

Kandyce Livingston with her husband, Jackie Deason

Kandyce Livingston with her husband, Jackie Deason.  Courtesy Kandyce Livingston

In a recent letter to me, Deason wrote that after the call, corrections officers tossed him in an isolated “dry cell” without a bunk or running water, where he was monitored and ordered to defecate in a bucket to check if he’d swallowed any drugs (none were ever found). Before the allegations, Deason had made parole and was scheduled for release on May 10, 2019. The disciplinary case not only kept him behind bars but also landed him in restrictive housing, a form of solitary confinement without access to phone calls. “We went from visits every weekend and multiple phone calls a day to nothing,” Livingston says.

“Why should my wife be taken off my list?” Deason wrote. “She hasn’t ever brought me nothing at all through visit. She has never been caught with contraband and neither have I.”

Livingston has asked prison officials to let her listen to a recording of the call to no avail, and to investigate her complaint. In her last appeal letter to the Director’s Review Committee, she apologizes for even talking about contraband on the prison phone system and pleads with officials to restore her visits. In her letter, Livingston said that the couple’s daughters, ages 7 and 12, rarely see their father now.

Three weeks after her appeal, Livingston got the same letter received by so many others. “After careful perusal and deliberation, it was the decision of the committee not to grant the request,” the letter told her. “Your name will not be added to the list of approved visitors.”

Have you been affected by TDCJ’s visitation policies? Share your story at texasobserver.org/visitation.