If geographically possible, you may also consider visiting PP/POWs. Some prisoners enjoy visits more than others, some prisoners receive frequent visits, while others receive few or none. After you have established a relationship with a prisoner and you decide to request a visit, here are some things that could be helpful.
Restrictions and criteria for visiting Federal and State prisons are different. Generally, it is easier to visit state prisoners. Visiting conditions are usually better at Federal prisons. Listed below are some of the different guidelines for visiting Federal/State prisoners, and some guidelines useful to visit any prisoner. Because prisons often have restrictions on how many visits prisoners may receive per month, avoid surprising prisoners with visits as it may conflict with visits they are already expecting. Also, if arranging visits by mail, try to be specific about the day you will visit. By being vague and saying you’ll visit “sometime that week”, you may tie up the prisoners whole week if someone else wants to visit them the same week. If two people visit on the same day, one of you will have to be turned away at the front desk. Prisons so rarely bend any rules, especially for PP/POWs, that we might as well say they never do. Prisoners who receive very few visits may tell you to visit any time. But until they give you the freedom to do so, be principled, be considerate.
To visit Federal prisoners, you must first be approved by filling out a form that the prisoner must send you in advance. In most federal prisons only people who say they had a relationship to a federal prisoner prior to their imprisonment are likely to be approved. They will ask you to describe the relationship you had and where it began. Usually, the prison will not approve people who say they visit other prisoners. Once you complete and mail the form to the prisoner’s counselor (the address will be provided on the visiting form sent to you be the prisoner), the prisoner will tell you if you have been approved or denied. In any case, each prisoner can tell you specifics of the prison they are held in.
State prisons do not require you to be placed on an approved visitors list, (as far as we know, Pennsylvania is the only exception). You will go through a metal detector at any prison you visit. In addition to this, many state prisons require you to be pat searched. State prisons also often have much stricter dress codes.
Confirm visiting days through the mail (or by phone if they call you). Plan visits ahead of time and allows enough time to reschedule a visit if your schedules conflict. Try to propose visiting days at least two or three weeks ahead of time if you are scheduling it through the mail. Work out all the details and ask all questions with the prisoner through the mail (or by phone if they call you). Ask about visiting days and hours, dress codes, the maximum number of visitors allowed per visit if you plan on bringing other supporters, about getting photos of your visit, and anything else you can think of.
You will not be allowed to visit without presenting a valid photo ID like a drivers license or county ID. Bring enough small bills or change for the vending machines in the visiting room so you and the prisoner can eat. Upon entering, and often after leaving a visit with a PP/POW, supporters often feel a sense of depression or some kind of sorrow for the prisoner. Visits often clearly illustrate to us that these prisoners are not abstractions or pieces of history that we read about in books, but living beings surviving in the indeed virtual hell of the United States Prison System. However, these feelings often come from subjectiveness and it is important to keep the objective in mind. As Puerto Rican POW Carmen Valentín reminds us, “Though our imprisonment is surely a form of torture, and at times very depressing for anyone to fathom, it is vital for fellow revolutionaries on the streets to be mindful that enduring our imprisonment is our responsibility as revolutionaries at this time. Our supporter’s responsibility is to build a movement strong enough to offer principled support and eventually free us. Any sad or depressing feelings of leaving us here after a visit should be transformed into this reality.”
Several PP/POW’s have also expressed the feeling of some visitors being like visitors at the zoo coming to see the PP/POW in their cage. This is likely to occur when supporters jump to visits without putting much energy into building a supportive relationship and indeed a friendship. Often this is due to a visitor’s romantic ideas about PP/POWs, which can be corrected in most cases by putting energy into building a relationship first.
If you have any further questions you’d like answered before writing to the prisoner, more information about any of the prisoners, or would like to meet up with one of us to go on a visit, please feel free to contact us.