Criminology Prison Visitation
Johnna Christian
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0273


As rates of incarceration in the United States increased to the level termed “mass imprisonment,” interest in the broader consequences of correctional involvement also grew. Researchers and policymakers expanded their attention beyond the individual in prison or jail, to examine the lives of those connected to the incarcerated individual, such as family members and friends. Family life is affected in myriad ways when a member is incarcerated. A family may experience the loss of income, parents’ contact with children is restricted, and adult partners’ lives are altered. The incarcerated individual’s parents and broader systems of kin and friendship networks are also impacted by a family members’ incarceration. One important means of staying connected to a person in a correctional institution is prison visitation. Studies indicate that visitation is the least frequent form of contact between the incarcerated and outsiders (phone calls and the exchange of letters is more common), but visitation is nonetheless a significant aspect of incarceration. Visitation is a unique experience for family members in that they are free people who enter correctional facilities and must then abide by institutional rules. At the same time that family members enter institutions to visit, for the incarcerated individual, visitation provides important opportunities to interact with the outside world and maintain familial bonds. There is commonly held wisdom that correctional officials value visitation as a programmatic offering that occupies inmates’ time and provides opportunities for pro-social interactions. Visitation can, however, present challenges, as contact with outsiders may be an avenue for securing contraband. Visitation encounters are tightly regulated, with institutions arguing the rules are necessary for the safety and security of the institution, and some family members experiencing the restrictions as unnecessarily repressive. Published research about prison visitation has developed significantly over the last several decades. The earliest research, linking visitation to inmate outcomes such as institutional behavior and recidivism after release, suffered methodological limitations by not controlling for the factors that could influence both the likelihood of receiving visits from family members and these outcomes. As the research has advanced, the methodological rigor of studies has improved, as well as work applying a range of methodological approaches. Current research examines the experiences of family members (including children) visiting within institutions, inmate experiences of visitation and outcomes during and after release, and visitation modalities such as conjugal and video visitation. Scholars continue mapping out an agenda for future research and policy questions. Topics of particular importance include how to facilitate visitation access for families, making visitation spaces more welcoming and comfortable for family members and children, and using visitation during the incarceration period to facilitate reentry and reintegration into the family and community upon release.

Reports and Overviews

In general, our understanding of prison visitation at the national and international level is limited. There is a great deal of jurisdictional variation in visitation rules, policies, and practices. Even within the same state, visitation varies by institution security level such as maximum or medium. Local jails, typically operated by the county sheriff’s office, have differing rules from state and federal institutions. Inmates in specialized units such as solitary confinement or mental health units may have different visitation options as well. Glaze and Maruschak 2008 provides descriptive data about visitation frequency, as well as contact by phone and mail, for inmates with minor children in state and federal prisons in the United States. Boudin, et al. 2013 provides a thorough overview of visitation polices in all fifty states in the United States, comparing and contrasting policies and including information about overnight and virtual visitation. De Claire and Dixon 2017; Mitchell, et al. 2016; and Cramer, et al. 2017 are meta analyses or systematic reviews of published research about prison visitation. These sources are excellent starting points for acquiring background knowledge about the topic of prison visitation and directions for future research (Tasca, et al. 2016).

  • Boudin, C., T. Stutz, and A. Littman. 2013. Prison visitation policies: A fifty state survey. Yale Law & Policy Review 32: 149–189.

    Thorough overview of visitation policies in each state. Highlights jurisdictional differences and the legal basis for prison visitation.

  • Cramer, L., M. Goff, B. Peterson, and H. Sandstrom. 2017. Parent-child visiting practices in prisons and jails: A synthesis of research and practice. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

    Systematic review of research about visitation between parents and children.

  • De Claire, K., and L. Dixon. 2017. The effects of prison visits from family members on prisoners’ well-being, prison rule breaking, and recidivism: A review of research since 1991. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 18.2: 185–199.

    Systematic review of research about the relationship between prison visitation and prisoner well-being, in-prison behavior, and recidivism. Provides important insight about the methodological rigor of prior research.

  • Glaze, L. E., and L. M. Maruschak. 2008. Parents in prison and their minor children. In Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report (NCJ 222984). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

    A government report with descriptive information about incarcerated individuals with children in state and federal prisons in the United States. Provides baseline data about contact frequency, including in-prison visits.

  • Mitchell, M. M., K. Spooner, D. Jia, and Y. Zhang. 2016. The effect of prison visitation on reentry success: A meta-analysis. Journal of Criminal Justice 47:74–83.

    A meta-analysis of studies about the linkage between visitation and recidivism after release. Source provides examples for evaluating the methodological rigor of published studies.

  • Tasca, M., K. A. Wright, J. J. Turanovic, C. White, and N. Rodriguez. 2016. Moving visitation research forward: The Arizona Prison Visitation Project. Criminology, Criminal Justice Law, & Society 17.1: 55–67.

    This article provides a comprehensive overview of an important source of data about prison visitation in Arizona, in the US Southwest. Outlines key methodological concerns and is a good starting point for the development of new research initiatives.

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