Numerous studies have indicated that prisoners have a much greater likelihood of not being re-arrested when they stay in contact with friends and family outside the prison walls. Maintaining a connection to the outside world helps to keep incarcerated men and women focused on a life to which they want to return, and keeps them from adopting a “criminal identity.”
In order to foster such support, having regular interaction between prisoners and their families—either via personal visits or phone calls—is vital. But for prisoners who have been transferred to facilities in states thousands of miles away, such contact with their loved ones is both logistically and fiscally prohibitive.
This is the case for Mahealani Meheula. A resident of Honolulu, Meheula has both a boyfriend and a nephew in the Hawaii corrections system. However, due to overcrowded prisons in that state, both men have been transferred to the Saguaro Correctional Facility in Arizona, almost 3,000 miles and an ocean away.
Meheula estimates that her annual visits to Saguaro cost her between $1,000 and $1,200. A recent visit, where she picked up her nephew’s grandmother in Seattle for the visit, cost an excess of $2,300.
“I know they’re incarcerated, and they’ve got to do time; I get that,” Meheula laments in a story by the Marshall Project. “But it’s unjust for them to be so far.”
Four states (plus the U.S. Virgin Islands) currently send over 7,200 prisoners to other states to relieve overcrowding, and two others are considering doing the same in coming months. In addition to relieving crowded conditions in their own facilities, state officials cite a savings of nearly 50 percent per prisoner per day as a reason for continuing the practice.
But any costs that states like Hawaii are saving by shipping prisoners to faraway locations are being felt by those like Meheula, who only want to encourage their loved ones and see them return to a successful life outside of prison.
Having a family member in prison can be a significant financial burden to those with a loved one behind bars. In addition to the potential income lost due to incarceration, there are costs associated with travel for visitation, exorbitant phone call rates, and the possibility of losing family possessions via civil asset forfeiture. And this does not take into account the emotional and developmental costs of separating parents and children, husbands and wives.
“Any time you move inmates away from the people who can support them, away from where they’re going to actually reenter society, I have to say it is flat-out correctional malpractice,” says Kevin Kempf, who serves as the director of the Idaho Department of Corrections. Until recently, Idaho had been sending prisoners to facilities in other states—a practice that Kempf helped to end last month.
While states like Hawaii may be meeting a short-term need, the long-term damage being done by sending prisoners miles away to serve their sentences may ultimately trump any immediate benefits. The separating of prisoners from those who can have a positive impact on their lives makes them more likely to embrace the prison culture, ultimately returning to society as more hardened criminals. They are distanced from reentry programs designed to prepare them to enter communities in their states. The likely result is higher rates of recidivism, which will perpetuate overcrowding issues and render any savings earned by sending prisoners out of state moot. And this does not consider the immeasurable damage done to individuals and families who must deal with prolonged separation.
A better solution to prison overcrowding begins with a consideration for alternate forms of sentencing for non-violent offenders. Instead of taking a “band-aid” approach to overcrowding that only delays dealing with the root causes of incarceration, correction officials would be better served by a systemic evaluation of who is being incarcerated, and what methods of corrections work best to reduce crime and lower recidivism. And perhaps more importantly, it would would benefit those like Mahealani Meheula, who want to encourage friends and family members behind bars, and who are currently paying a steep price to do so.
To learn more about Prison Fellowship’s efforts to promote fair sentencing practices and a constructive culture inside prisons across the United States, visit www.prisonfellowship.org/advocacy. And to see what is being done to strengthen and support families affected by crime and incarceration, visit our Angel Tree page.