By Mark Arsenault Globe Staff
In reviewing the 16 years Bob Wojcik served in state prison, the Massachusetts Parole Board found a lot to like, particularly his commitment to rehabilitation and lack of disciplinary problems. But it was more than just his behavior inside the prison. The board twice cited Wojcik’s strong community support in its 2009 decision to release him.
Prison visits played a major role in staying connected to family and friends, Wojcik says. That’s why he opposes a new Department of Correction policy that will cap the number of visitors inmates can have.
State officials say the change will help reduce drug smuggling, a longtime problem in the prison system, and that the average inmate will not be affected by the limits. But advocates for prisoners say the restrictions will weaken family and community bonds for many inmates, potentially leading to greater recidivism.
Starting March 9, prison visitors must be preapproved, and the number of individuals allowed to visit any one inmate will be restricted.
Inmates in maximum security will be permitted no more than five names on their preapproved visitors list; inmates in medium security will be limited to eight names; and inmates in minimum security will be allowed 10, according to a Department of Correction notice summarizing the changes. Prisoners will be allowed to revise their visiting lists twice a year.
The total number of allowed visits will not change.
It is a substantial change from the current policy, which allows visitors to simply show up at a facility’s scheduled visiting time. After they complete a form, present an ID, and submit to a search, they are generally permitted to see an inmate.
“I think this is another tool in our arsenal in trying to control drug smuggling into the prisons,” Christopher Fallon, a Department of Correction spokesman, said in a recent interview. “If somebody is willing to be a drug mule, are they going to subject themselves to a preapproval process?”
In announcing the policy change in a Dec. 5 memo, Commissioner of Correction Thomas A. Turco III said the department recognizes that visits are important for an inmate’s “successful reentry into the community,” but “the department is also committed to ensuring the safety of all public, staff, visitors and inmates.”
Prisoner advocates say the limits are likely to lead to fewer overall visits, weakening the connection between inmates and the community. The strength of these connections are a strong predictor for whether an inmate is likely to return to crime upon release, said Leslie Walker, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, a nonprofit advocate for the humane treatment of inmates.
“There is plenty of research out there,” Walker said. “If this is going to risk increasing recidivism, then why? Why bother? Why now?”
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