MDOC: Only immediate family can visit inmates
An Aug. 31 memo from the Mississippi Department of Corrections says offenders will be limited to visitations of 10 members of their immediate family.
"The recent change in the visitation policy was prompted by security violations that are being investigated," said Grace Fisher, a spokeswoman for MDOC. "Upon completion of the investigation, we will consider re-evaluating the policy. Visitation this weekend will not be affected."
According to the memo, only "immediate family" can visit an inmate, including a spouse, children, stepchildren raised prior to age 12, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, grandchildren or documented surrogate parents.
"This excludes ALL pastors, friends, girlfriends, fiancés, cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, in-laws and anyone else who is not listed above," the memo says.
Jody Owens II, director of the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents thousands of inmates, is urging Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher to reconsider the change.
“I’ve got thousands of clients who were raised by whoever would love them — beyond immediate family,” he said.
Inmates “having the love and embrace of a family member helps them in prison,” he said. “The change seems short sighted.”
He fears the change could lead to unrest as well.
“It will only increase the likelihood that inmates are harder to control,” he said. “This is a safety issue for all people employed by MDOC.”
Matt Friedeman, pastor of Dayspring Community Church in Clinton, said he felt the rule, which excludes pastors, is “unfortunate.”
Friedeman said his congregation has an “extensive” prison ministry, visiting MDOC facilities at least once a week and holding Bible studies and church services.
“As a pastor, I really appreciate the work MDOC does, but I think most people in MDOC would agree pastoral relations with a prisoner are helpful,” Friedeman said. “I think it’s unfortunate for the inmates that, if they want to better their lives, one of the key dynamics with that progress would be a relationship with the Lord.
“It’s a critical thing for an inmate if they choose to have that kind of spiritual counseling that they can receive from a pastor. If they want it, they ought to be able to receive it in my estimation.”
Paloma Wu, legal director for the ACLU of Mississippi, said she is concerned about the legalities of the new rule.
"We have been contacted by family members who would be impacted, we have reviewed the policy, and we have serious concerns regarding its legality," Wu said. "We are considering all options.”
Jessica Ransom divorced Keewin Grayer in 2012, but they reunited about a year ago. She is among those affected by the change.
“You cannot expect an inmate to rehabilitate when you strip friends, pastors, girlfriends or boyfriends from seeing one another,” she said.
She noted the Department of Corrections got rid of its long-standing practice of conjugal visits in 2014.
Grayer, now serving 15 years for marijuana possession, has made a change in his life, has earned a degree in theology and is now involved in programs to help inmates get on the right path, she said.
“Now you are taking the only thing he looks forward to every other week away from him, because his family cannot come,” she said. “Why?”
Lois Reidy is the fiancée of David Feliciano, who was sentenced to nearly 18 years for reportedly leaving the scene of an accident.
She said they have been trying to get married, but have been unable to get the paperwork done.
“He’s never had anybody to visit but me,” she said.
She’s been unable to visit him the past three weeks at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution because the prison has been locked down.
“For David and the others, I think it’s desperate,” she said.
Britanny Dunnam, whose husband is behind bars, will still be able to visit, but she worries about those who won't be able to, including "pastors, friends, cousins and neighbors. ... This isn't fair to the inmate or to us as a loved one."
She urged Fisher to end the policy. "I've interacted with many MDOC staff over the years, and I cannot believe that the majority of your prison staff members support this policy either," she said. "It will only make their jobs harder as the inmates have less incentive for good behavior."
Cindy Kelly has been visiting her friend behind bars for eight years.
In an email to Fisher, she told him that family "is not always defined by blood relations. For many inmates, visits with friends, clergy, former coworkers or neighbors are just as important as visits with blood-related family because many of those relationships are as important as family. Some inmates, especially those who have been locked up for a long time, have lost their immediate family members and it is only non blood-related family who are able and willing to visit. My dear friend, who has been in MDOC custody for 18 years, no longer has his parents.
"Now this policy says I am no longer eligible to visit him. My friend has an exemplary disciplinary record. He's been 'A' custody for years. Our visits are a large part of what keeps him positive and looking forward to life after his release. Our visits are a big part of his hope that he can build a new life after his release."
She wondered about barring pastors, too. "In a state as religiously conservative as Mississippi you think that not allowing clergy to visit is a good idea?" she asked.
Blewett Thomas, a Columbus-based attorney who specializes in criminal defense and post-conviction relief, said the new rule was “interesting.”
“I can’t understand why a pastor can’t go and visit a prisoner,” Thomas said. “This to me, hits me more as being overreach by the Department of Corrections more than anything else. I don’t see it serving any administrative purpose.”