We’re gearing up for another long road trip to prison to visit my little brother Noah. So I’d thought I’d write about what it’s like visiting family in prison.
If you’re new to the blog, Noah’s my little brother who is currently serving a 10 year prison sentence for running a drug conspiracy. He’s been writing on the blog regularly about his experience inside those walls, his backstory of why, and everything he’s learned from living with addiction to now with a clear mental state of mind. We’re counting down the days until he is home with our family again but, in the meantime, visiting prison has become our new normal.
If you’re headed to visit a loved one or family in prison I wanted to share some of the things you can expect or that you need to do beforehand. Or if you know someone that is headed down this path and about to go to prison, Noah wrote a full blog post on how to prepare for prison from his perspective too.
My first time visiting a prison, which was to see Noah, I remember shaking so bad. I couldn’t even write my own name when signing in or hand the guard my ID. I held in the tears until after the 2-3 rooms they locked me in and out of until they opened me up to the visitation room. Then I broke down and lost it.
We had to sit in folding chairs across one another and besides a quick hug when we saw each-other there was no other touch allowed (not that I needed to touch my brother, haha).
He wasn’t allowed to get up and walk around, he could only go to the bathroom during a set window time, he couldn’t walk up to the vending machine to look at the food or touch any of the money I brought in.
Now where Noah’s serving time, he can go to the bathroom when he wants but has to ask for permission and he can get up and walk into the kids area, which is now nice so he can play with his daughter. He couldn’t do that at the first prison he was at, which was hard because kids only want to sit still for so long.
1. You have to get approved
Not just anyone can visit an inmate in prison. You have to be on your inmate’s visiting list and go through a pre-approval process before you head on in. You can check here to find an application per state. And remember, they do background checks so if you’ve had any past illegal activity you might not get approved.
2. Every prison & guard has different rules
Every prison has different rules and a different warden that runs the compound. With new wardens comes new rules that then can also change regularly. In the last six years, Noah has served his time in two different prison compounds, and each were very different experiences when visiting, yet had some similar rules.
Make sure to check the facilities website and be aware of all the rules, which we’ll chat about some we’ve learned over the years to be aware of.
3. Be on time
Once you’re approved, be early for visitation and make sure you check the facilities visitation days/hours and the inmate’s visitation rights. For Noah he has one weekend a month that he’s allowed to have visitors. If someone needs to come another weekend he has to get prior approval. Most facilities are also closed holidays and other days throughout the week. For Noah, we can only visit Friday – Sunday and the hours are different each day. There’s also a few small windows throughout the day you can get in. That’s why you want to be early! Typically there is a line and the guards only work so fast so if you miss the window you have to wait until the next window of time when they let visitors in again.
4. Know the dress code
This was one of the first mistakes lots of our friends and family members made, the dress code. One of my first times visiting I was wearing leggings, with an oversized sweater and tall winter boots. Leggings were not allowed. Luckily I had a friend with that gave me her jeans and went out and bought new pants. If I wouldn’t had gotten in, at that window time, I would have had to wait another three hours to be let in. And when you drove two days to see them for only six hours, three hours is a big deal.
Our cousin during her first visit had an underwire in her bra. Which also wasn’t allowed… so she was off to find a new bra. Or maybe she went in without a bra? I can’t remember. It also made for good family laughs, I do have to say!
Little things like that, that might never cross your mind! So make sure to check the dress code on the facility’s website before you pack up and go.
5. Know what you can bring in
Both of the prisons Noah’s been in has had the same rules on this. No coats, chapstick, food, drinks… basically all you can bring in is $20 worth of quarters (in a ziplock bag, not packaged together), your car key and your ID.
You’ll also want to know your inmate’s ID number and you car’s license plate number as you’ll need give them that information when you enter. Both of which were hard numbers for me to memorize so here’s a tip I learned to do- write them down on my zip-lock bag.
6. Seeing them for the first time…
Seeing them for the first time at visitation is always going to be hard.
All I could remember after I saw his face was, “how did we let you end up here?”
Five years later, I still wonder and think the same thing every single time I see him walk through those double doors into the visitation room.
Once you get into the visitation center, they’ll call him and let him know his visitors have arrived. You won’t hear or see any of this. But you’ll see the door the inmates are coming through. There will be a light above the door and a guard standing there. The light will turn on when the inmate is coming through. And you won’t be able to take your eye off the door as you watch one inmate come through, then another, and another in anticipation for when you get to see your loved one.
And when you do, remember, it’s ok to cry. I bawled my eyes out the first few times. It was bad. Now I just hold in the tears, clench my jaw and give him a great big hug!
7. Remember, they are a prisoner
You have to remember, they are a prisoner. Which means, they get treated like that right before your eyes while you’re visiting them. You also want to be respectful to the guards or you’ll be quickly escorted out.
This is something I never thought about when I first started visiting Noah and it took me awhile get used to. I’m still not used to it, but I get it. They have lost all of their rights. Even though I’d love to see one of them smile, the guards aren’t their friends.
Which means they have to ask to go to the bathroom, stand behind lines, stand against a wall for count, can’t walk around, can’t touch your money and depending on the prison you’re in they may not even be able to hold their own child.
I’ll never forget one of our first visits as we left. We stood along one wall, prisoners stood across the room along the other, being forced to watch us all leave as they counted off. I was holding Noah’s daughter staring at them across the room as we first had to also stand and stare at each-other from across the room before we filed out. He wasn’t being treated like a human, he was being treated like just another number. And I couldn’t help but think we were all being tortured as I was holding onto his daughter for dear life as she kicked and screamed just wanting to give her daddy a hug. How was this helping anyone’s mental state?
8. Prepare to not be hungry
You definitely don’t want to come into prison hungry! Because you’ll be eating out of a vending machine and probably leave with a gut rot.
Which is hard to eat prior sometimes when coming in, because of the nerves and anxiety. But your only food options will be out of a vending machine. And in Detroit, the vending machines just ate your money so there was a good chance a snickers was going to cost you $20. And that was all the food you were going to share between all of you.
In prison there is “count” which happens multiple times throughout the day. Which means they all get counted off to make sure no-one’s made a run for it!
Count happens while you’re in visitation too. They will blow a whistle or a guard will yell and all the inmates will abruptly stand up and walk back through those double doors or up against a wall and be counted off. It takes no more than 20 minutes but might catch you off guard the first time it happens.
10. There are photo ops
This threw me off first time visiting, but also made me laugh! Both prisons Noah’s served in had photo ops, which I’ve always been really thankful for. What made me laugh is some of the different back drops they had, they’ve been pretty entertaining. It kinda made me feel like we were back in the 80’s doing those JC Penny glam shots, ha! But I’m still appreciative they do this regardless of the backdrops.
The inmate have to pay for the photos and another inmate who’s working the photo desk, will take it for you. The inmate will then get the photos at a later time and can mail one to you. Hence, why our photos always look so blurry because I have to scan them into these posts.
11. Visitation is monitored
There are multiple guards standing in the room and there are cameras and recorders set up too. Like I mentioned, prisoners have lost all of their rights so there really is no safe place to talk about anything private that you don’t want a guard knowing while they are in prison. The letters you send will be opened and read, the phone calls are monitored so it’s no surprise that your visitation will be too.
12. It’s ok to sit in silence
First time visiting Noah all I could think about going in was, what are we going to talk about for 6 hours straight with nothing but us. No cell phones, no pictures, no books, no games, no cards, just us.
But trust me, you will find plenty to talk about! At his second compound he’s serving at there are games now to play, which makes it more fun but the first there wasn’t any.
And sometimes we literally just sit, especially when we go three days in a row. But Noah has made it very clear how much he just simply loves to sit in our presence and sometimes not talk about anything. And to me, I forget about those simple pleasures that we have with our loved ones now that he doesn’t.
13. It’s REALLY HARD coming and going…
There really is no way to prepare for visiting your loved one in prison. Especially because every prison and guard is so different.
After 5 years of visiting Noah regularly it’s still really hard. It’s not only physically but mentally exhausting.
Unfortunately for us, Noah has never been close to home. So going to see him has always meant long traveling days. When he first got sentenced it took us a good two full days to see him. Now it’s about six- 12 hour road trip for our family.
It’s really hard for Noah to see family too but it’s what keeps his spirits up! He told us some inmates won’t allow visitors because it is just too hard for them and makes their stay longer. But for Noah, he tells us it’s the only short term thing to keep him motivated and to keep his mind off how much more time he still has left.
Coming is hard but leaving is even harder. I’m always starring at the clock the last two hours praying it’ll just stop for one minute. I still always cry the first 20 minutes as we drive away. It almost feels like we abandoned someone and just left them in a dark alley. But we always get an email shortly after we leave from Noah thanking us and telling him how much every minute of our time together meant.
So even though no matter how hard it is for you, if you want to see them change, you need to show up. One of my favorite quotes, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” – Mother Theresa. And showing up is all the love your family needs.