By a family member

Being able to visit a relative who is in prison overseas can have immeasurable wellbeing benefits for both family member and prisoner. However, family members who have been able to make the trip, often halfway across the world, must then navigate foreign prison systems.

This family member writes about their experience visiting their relative imprisoned in the USA.

Visiting federal prisons in America has its challenges. As well as the heightened emotions of seeing your loved one, you are dealing with your own complex thoughts. There is no one there to guide you or explain about the necessary procedures which can change depending on who is on the desk at each prison. These are some of the things I have learnt from the experiences I have had.

Though not always possible, previous visits have shown it’s best to be prepared for unexpected delays and closures. This can mean booking a longer trip to make sure the visit happens. Once when I travelled to visit, there was a bad fog so no visiting was permitted until it cleared. On my last visit attempt, I found the prison had shut down due a virus, so I was unable to visit for a further week. Fortunately, I had booked time off to include two weekends, and I was able to have a visit at the end of my trip.  

I have found that it is important make sure you have a change of clothes with you in case the officer does not approve: for example, neckline too low, dress too short, clothing too tight. It’s also crucial to never wear orange or beige, as this is the colour of inmate clothing, which can vary in State and Federal prisons.

You can’t wear backless shoes like flip flops or sandals and I always ensure there is no metal on my clothing. If a visitor is wearing jewellery or watches these have to be taken off when going through the metal detector. For women, absolutely no wired bras are allowed; even the metal hooks set the alarms off.

If you arrive in a hired car you have to remember the number plate as it is a requirement to write this on the form handed in with your passport. At this point you are also asked for your loved one’s inmate number, so all in all you have to give quite a lot of information. All possessions, except keys and money need to be left in the car, or at home.

You have to bring a clear plastic bag for money which can be used in the visitor area for food. There are vending machines in this area and I’ve learnt that 25 cent coins or $1 dollar bills are best. Most prisons will allow up to a total of $30.

If you are travelling from the UK, when you change currency, request new dollar bills. This is because older currency may have traces of illegal substances and the prison may deny you a visit on that basis.

I was once denied a visit for this reason, and despite travelling all that way, a decision was made that I could not go back for a visit for three months. It was shattering. The vending machines (if working) sell slightly different food than that provided in the prison canteen. This is usually a welcome change for my loved one. I found a box of salad and a strawberry yogurt last time which may not seem like much, but it was a real treat for my loved one.

In some prisons, an officer will call ‘early release’ towards the end of the day which signals that you can leave early if you would like to. This happens about half an hour before the official end of visits.

This can be surprisingly helpful as it means avoiding queuing with other visitors which is good not only for officers, but more importantly for me, as saying farewell to a loved one is much harder when you are all waiting in a large queue. I vary whether I decide to leave early or not depending on how I feel at the time.

Whilst it is wonderful to be able to see your loved one at the start of a visit, it is very emotional and painful to leave at the end, not knowing when you may next see them. The support of the Family Days run by Prisoners Abroad helps me to process a visit. These allow me to share feelings with the family members of other prisoners who have gone through the same thing.

Facilitating contact and providing a listening ear.

Prisoners Abroad helps family members affected by a loved one’s imprisonment by providing one to one support as well as hosting family support groups around the country and arranging overseas vis-its.

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