Visitation blues

For a family who spends weekends with loved ones in prison, new rules would make the difficult even tougher

Stephanie, Jazmin and Sabriyya Antwine wait to spend time with Uncle Jimmy and Grandpa Morris during a recent visit to California State Prison Solano.

Stephanie, Jazmin and Sabriyya Antwine wait to spend time with Uncle Jimmy and Grandpa Morris during a recent visit to California State Prison Solano.

Photo by Megan Wong

Stephanie Antwine, her mother, and her two young daughters have committed no crime, yet they regularly go to prison. Like thousands of others with loved ones incarcerated in California prisons, Stephanie, Jac’lene, Jazmin (age 6) and Sabriyya (age 2) make these trips—sometimes several hundred miles in a weekend—in order to keep their family together.

Unfortunately for this family, new changes to visiting regulations being considered by the California Department of Corrections could make that task more challenging than ever.

“You get frustrated when you go to the jailhouse and you’ve been going for a while and you think ‘OK, it’s all right to wear [a particular item of clothing]’ and you find out you can’t,” Stephanie explains. “Or it gets frustrating when you get all the way up to the jailhouse and you find out there was a fight or something and everybody’s on lockdown. It gets frustrating. But you can’t get mad at the rules and regulations of a jail because it’s a jail. It’s not normal to society for you just to go visit a prison, for you just to go to jail. You can’t really get upset, you kind of gotta expect some … something.”

It is not easy on them, but Stephanie makes the effort to keep coming because she does not see it as a choice: “No matter what they did wrong, that’s still your loved one. That is still your family.”

She recalls a day that she drove five hours all the way from Sacramento to Soledad (when her husband was there) only to have the visit terminated after an hour and a half due to lack of space in the visiting area: “You drive longer than you get to visit some days.”

Since they were babies, Jazmin and Sabriyya have accompanied their mother and grandmother on weekly visits to see the three most important men in their lives, all of whom are inmates in California prisons. The girls’ father, Avery Antwine, is incarcerated in Tracy; their step-grandfather, Earl Morris, and their great-uncle, James Reece, are both inmates at California State Prison Solano in Vacaville.

It is a beautiful spring day, but—like every other weekend—Stephanie and her family will spend most of their time indoors. Thursday through Sunday are visiting days at California prisons.

Stephanie, Jazmin and Sabriyya arrive at the visitor processing area in Vacaville holding hands. It is 2 p.m., so they have missed the initial rush. Several families were already in line when visiting hours began an hour earlier. Jac’lene Morris, Stephanie’s mother, joins them a few minutes later and the four of them begin a familiar ritual: security and clothing check.

Stephanie, the girls and their grandmother remove bags, shoes and jackets before walking through a large metal-detector. A half-hour earlier, a young woman dressed in a black outfit suitable for most office jobs was refused entry unless she changed into something the guard considered “less sheer.” Veterans of this finicky process, the young family provides no excuse to be turned away.

Heavy doors buzz open and they follow the concrete path to the visiting facility.

The capacity of the hall resembles a hospital cafeteria while the low furniture blanketing the room gives the odd impression of a kindergarten classroom. There are no Ritz crackers, carrots, or milk on these tabletops, however. Bags of corn chips, Snickers ice-cream bar wrappers, soda cans, and pre-packaged, microwavable junk food litter the surface of the small, square table around which Stephanie, her mother, and daughters sit with inmates Earl Morris and James Reece.

The festive atmosphere implied by the generous helpings of treats and congenial banter belies the grave environment in which these reunions take place.

Strikingly, no tantrums break out the entire afternoon. Although dozens of 2- through 9-year-old children crawl over, under, and around adults attempting to carry on conversations above their heads, the childrens’ interactions are curiously measured. All seem quite content, but notably lacking the self-absorbed abandon common in young kids.

It is as if everyone, consciously or not, senses how precious—and vulnerable—this time together is.

Many prisoners and their loved ones feel that policies surrounding inmate and visitor conduct have steadily become more restrictive over the past decade. Prior to 1994, for example, California law dictated that the state could only deprive prisoners of rights “necessary to provide for the reasonable security of the institution and for the reasonable protection of the public.” Since that time, however, the standard for evaluating new restrictions on inmates was broadened to include those related to “legitimate penological interests.”

Following that policy shift, new regulations severely restricted media access to prisoners: journalists and other members of the press are now barred from requesting visits with specific inmates. New grooming standards for inmates were adopted, requiring military-style haircuts for men and specific make-up guidelines for women.

Stephanie Antwine goes through the prison’s metal detector after removing her shoes.

Photo by Megan Wong

A state law was passed to prohibit prisoners from exercising with weights. Prisoners serving life sentences without parole dates lost the ability to have overnight family visits. In 1996, a statute proclaimed that personal visits (of the type that Antwine and her family make every weekend) were no longer a right of inmates as they had been since 1975, but rather a privilege, one that could be denied for a variety of reasons.

And now, there are even more changes on the way.

James Reece’s undivided attention is focused on Sabriyya. His tall, lanky body, graced with limbs like a dancer’s, is barely contained by the tiny, plastic chair in which he sits facing her. The toddler’s brown eyes sparkle with the affection shown her by this redwood tree of a man, her beloved Great-Uncle Jimmy.

Their interaction bespeaks the adoration that Sabriyya’s grandmother, Jac’lene, observes regularly: “As soon as we drive up to the prison, Sabriyya sees where we’re going and she starts saying their names: ‘Uncle Jimmy! Uncle Jimmy!’ ”

Sabriyya’s long, dark eyelashes bat playfully as she captivates the adults seated in short, plastic chairs beside her. For once, they are just her height. She is almost level with her great-uncle as she stands beside Reece’s chair, resting her small hand absentmindedly on his knee. Intuitively, she raises both arms and looks up at him sweetly. Reece happily obliges, lifting her into his lap. Deep lines crinkle his aging, brown skin as he chuckles gently.

This scene replays itself in various forms around the visiting room. Fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, uncles and nephews share quiet moments together: holding hands, reassuring one another with their touch. There is an air of stolen affection, a hoarding of moments.

Several months ago, the California Department of Corrections made public their desire to rewrite a large section of the California Code of Regulations governing visitation in California prisons. Included in the CDC’s proposal are regulations that would further restrict human contact between visitors and inmates.

In addition to housekeeping measures designed to better organize and update the code itself, proposed policy augmentations include the following: Male inmates will no longer be allowed to hold children over the age of 6 on their lap; kissing and/or embracing between visitors and inmates (which may occur only at the beginning and end of a visit) shall not exceed five seconds in duration; inmates convicted for the sale, possession to sell, or manufacture of drugs shall be barred from contact visits for the first 12 months of their incarceration.

The general consensus among families and prisoners alike is that such policies will cause more problems than they will solve. The department’s preliminary “wish list,” a term used by CDC spokesperson Russ Heimerich to describe the proposals, elicited thousands of letters, phone calls, and even personal testimony by family, friends and other prisoner’s rights advocates culminating at a public hearing held in Sacramento in early March.

Due in part to the amount of negative feedback received, the CDC may consider amending or even eliminating some parts of their proposal. However, modifications to the original proposal will be considered by an internal committee of department officials only, and these discussions will not be open to the public. If the department is able to complete the required responses to public comment soon, these internal discussions could take place as early as mid-June or July.

According to Heimerich, should the CDC decide to make changes to the draft proposal that are “more than minor or cosmetic” in nature, the department must renotice the amended proposal for 15 days. If this occurs, the public may provide written feedback on the new proposals during the renotice period. However, no additional public hearings will be held. The department will likely post any modified regulations on its Web site. Final regulation changes will then be sent to the Office of Administrative Law for technical review before implementation.

According to Stephanie, the proposed rule changes threaten to erode crucial family ties. For years, she has consistently brought her daughters to visit their incarcerated relatives precisely to cultivate these important relationships. If the “lap restriction,” for example, is accepted she fears her daughter Jazmin may start asking their grandfather: “How do I love you? I can’t give you a hug and sit on your lap, so how do they want us to love you while you’re in there?”

Stephanie bounces Sabriyya on her knee as she elaborates: “Now, that’s fine for her [referring to Sabriyya, who is 2], but what about her sister? Jazmin will be turning 7 next year. How am I supposed to explain to her why her sister can sit and play horsey with Granddaddy, but she can’t? That’s going to get into a lot of issues that I don’t want to necessarily talk to a 7-year-old about.”

She is also concerned about how such a policy change could affect her daughter’s psychological development: “If we start telling [Jazmin] about how these rules were created to protect kids from being hurt by men, is she going to develop a complex about her daddy when he comes home? She is going to say ‘Why is it OK to sit in daddy’s lap now and it wasn’t OK before?’ ”

According to Earl Morris, the girls’ step-grandfather and a 26-year veteran of the California correctional system, “Visiting has always been the neutral ground.”

He and other inmates explain that any issues prisoners have with one another stay on the yard: “There is an unspoken law with inmates. We don’t bring our problems, our hatreds, our ‘trips’ into the visiting area—out of respect for the families.”

As the day’s visit comes to a close, Reece, Jazmin and Stephanie walk me to the entrance. Carrying Jazmin in his arms, Reece instructs her to say goodbye, which she does. The last image I see is James Reece, his 6-year-old grandniece clinging to his torso like a monkey. Gleefully, she leans back, trusting that his arms will catch her.

To Stephanie’s credit, the trust is mutual.