09/23/2011 12:06 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Family Support Imperative for Prison Inmates

The full-bosomed Latina grandma in a pink sweater set came barreling out of the door of the inspection room. I had been looking through the window in the door, watching the Correctional Officer (CO) take her identification and motion to her to take off her sweater. Under her sweater she wore a matching pink t-shirt. He stepped behind her and asked her to raise her right arm. Female visitors are not allowed to wear underwire bras to visit inmates at San Quentin. I don't know why; that wasn't explained in the 23-page document entitled "Visiting a Friend or Loved One in Prison."

There was a miniscule bra line barely visible under her armpit. He told her she could not be admitted. "I'm just too sexy" she said in a thick Spanish accent as she came out the door. We all laughed as she left to change. There are lockers where visitors can change into old "grandma" clothing if they are denied entry. But there was no reason to humiliate her or any of the other visitors.

I had arrived at San Quentin at 7 AM, and walked to the "tube," a long narrow room where visitors line up to be let into the inspection room. About 50 of us, mostly women, lined up in 2 rows: one for visitors who had appointments to see lifers and death row inmates and one without appointments for "mainline" visitors. That was my line.

There was some invisible numbering system that indicated who arrived first. Even though I was the seventh visitor there, it took two hours to be let into the inner sanctum. The appointments go first. A hefty tattooed white woman with spiked black hair assigned the rest of us our place in line. She was a regular visitor of a lifer and the unofficial monitor of the visitors. It was clear she had her favorites among visitors. And they weren't new nervous white girls like me.

Only one person was allowed in at a time into a small room with two male COs checking IDs and our clothes. Visitors are prohibited from wearing denim or any clothes that are orange or blue, colors worn by inmates. V-necks are banned as well as any evidence of cleavage. Skirts worn higher than 2 inches above the knee do not make the cut. We were required to carry our IDs along with single dollars to buy food for our inmate from the vending machines in a 6" x 8" clear plastic purse.

I had read the 23-page Dos and Don'ts and had also talked to another mother who had recently visited her son. But I was still nervous something would disqualify me. A seventy-two year old grandmother had been denied admittance the week before because she was wearing a coral colored blouse. Not orange: coral.

We waited 20 minutes for a white ramshackle van to pick us up to take us to the H-block visitors' lounge. Approximately 100 visitors come through the inspection room during the hours between 8 AM to 2 PM. Yet the prison only transports 10 visitors at a time. I asked the driver if there was another van available to transport visitors back and forth. He said, "We have a whole fleet of vans" and pointed to a parking lot of white vans. When I said, "Then why aren't more vans used to transport visitors so we wouldn't have to wait so long?" he said, "Go figure."

This confirmed what my son had told me about asking questions of the COs. They give no answers. After a ten-minute ride, we disembarked and waited in a wire "cage" until we were let into the building. There, we gave a deputy our ID, went through another metal detector, entered the visiting room and handed a slip with our inmate's name to a deputy sitting on a high platform. Visitors sit in hard plastic chairs while their inmate is called.

After 30 minutes, when all of the other visitors' prisoners had arrived, I asked the CO where my son was. At this point, I had been waiting for over 3 hours. "He was turned back because he didn't have rubber soled shoes," he said. "He'll be here soon." I sat back down, confused. Prisoners have to buy their own shoes or have them sent by family members through the prison Secure Pak system. I had ordered sneakers to be sent to him. Hadn't they arrived?

After several minutes, my son came through a door into the room wearing a blue shirt with the word PRISONER emblazoned across his back, sweat pants, borrowed canvas rubber sole shoes and a big smile on his face. He walked up to the CO's platform to hand over his identification and gave me a big bear hug. I started to cry.

The room is laid out with rows of hard plastic chairs facing each other with small plastic tables in between. Inmates have to sit where they can be seen at all times by the COs. There is no privacy. Early in the morning it was easy to hear each other talk, but by noon the noise was deafening. Whole families with babies and toddlers come to visit their daddies.

My son looked around the room at the men sitting with their families. "There are guys in here I've never seen smile before. They almost look normal."

Prisoners and visitors can go to vending machines where delicacies are displayed behind revolving glass doors. Prisoners are not allowed to touch the machines or handle money. They stand behind a line 3 feet from the machine, point to an item, and their visitor feeds single dollar bills into the machine. I noticed the stroll to the vending machines was first on each prisoner's mind. Most of the prized sandwiches -- ham and cheese or roast beef on white bread -- were gone when we got there.

As time got short, we decided to have our picture taken. We were told to stand in front of a backdrop of blue skies with white fluffy clouds. The photo was blurred and the color was off, but we both smiled like we were somewhere in the Bahamas instead of a steel gray barbed wire enclosed sterile room.

Family support is imperative for success in and after prison to prevent recidivism. But visitors to prison are often treated like inmates, too. My hope is that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) will make visitation easier for all visitors, including families with inmates who have a mental illness, like my son, so that they can be successfully reintegrated into society.

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) California has encouraged the CDCR to facilitate the connections between inmates with serious mental illness and their families. Mark Gale of NAMI states,

I am very pleased to say that we are receiving strong, collaborative support from CDCR on this initiative. During a recent panel discussion, the subject of connecting inmates with families was being discussed. A senior official for CDCR said that inmates were asked for permission to contact their families at discharge, but expressed frustration that approximately 90 percent declined. I believe this person was making a rough estimate. We then discussed the need to focus on ways to reduce that percentage as family connection is especially critical for inmates with serious mental illness who are returning to the community.

Maureen Murdock, Ph.D is a psychotherapist living in Carpinteria, CA. and a member of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health).