The Costs of Prison Visitation

By: Kemper Scott

The U.S. alone holds 20% of the world’s prisoners.[1] According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, the total cost of maintaining our prison populations for state and federal government and the families of those locked away is up to $182 billion annually.[2] For the families of those locked away, the costs can be severe both financially and socially. In this post, I would like to briefly examine the cost imposed on the families and communities of those incarcerated through the lens of one aspect of prison policy: visitation.

Research indicates that prisoners who are allowed visitation show reduced recidivism rates and have an easier time reintegrating into society upon release.[3] Unfortunately, under current case law, such as Evans v. Johnson,[4] prisoners are not guaranteed visitation as a right, and instead, the decisions on whether to institute visitation and how to do so are left up to prison administrators.[5] In Kentucky Dep’t of Corrections v. Thompson,[6] the Supreme Court solidifies this stance by ruling that visitation is not a protected right for convicted inmates under due process unless prison regulations codify a specific liberty interest protecting visitation.[7]

The lack of constitutionally protected visitation allows prison administration to conduct visitation how they see fit. Often, this can have negative consequences for the families of inmates who wish to visit their loved ones in prison. When in-person visitation is allowed, the remote nature of many prisons often keeps families from being able to visit without undertaking long and expensive trips.[8] Upon arriving, their Fourth Amendment rights come second to prison security, and they may have their cars searched for contraband, as ruled in Neumeyer v. Beard.[9]

This combination of distance and privacy concerns might make calling or video visitation a preferable alternative for many families; however, these forms of contact might impose a heavy financial burden. Prison phone calls are often not free. One out of three families with an incarcerated family member go into debt trying to keep in touch.[10] On the other hand, videoconferencing can be even more expensive than calling, with some telecom companies charging as much as one dollar per minute.[11] The cost of videoconferencing can be a severe problem, as institutions who implement video calls often get rid of in-person visitation altogether, sometimes forcing families to pay to see their loved ones, and depriving them of the ability to see them in person at all.[12]

The potential impact of these increasingly commodified forms of prison visitation extends far beyond the prisoner’s immediate punishment. While anyone might suffer from being unable to afford to see their family members or loved ones, the immediate family of those incarcerated feels the most significant impact, with potential social ramifications rippling out into the community. Again, one of three families goes into debt keeping in touch with an incarcerated family member.[13] These same families also often suffer from a lack of childcare and a reduction in overall family income due to the absence of the prisoner’s former income.[14] Therefore, the costs associated with prison visitation only add to the burdens families face when a family member has been incarcerated.

It is important to remember that due to the economic and racial makeup of the U.S. prison system and the inherent inequity of any given financial burden across different economic classes, the negative side effects of these policies are not distributed evenly. Individuals from lower-income families are imprisoned at a much higher rate than those from middle- and upper-class families. Furthermore, there exists an inherent racial discrepancy in the U.S. justice system in which minority individuals, such as African Americans or Latinos, are imprisoned at higher rates.[15] It might be said that many of the resources going towards paying these costs come not from those that can afford it but from struggling communities already suffering from issues such as poverty and systemic racism. With this in mind, how could these iniquitous policies possibly be construed as anything other than prison systems siphoning resources from vulnerable communities?

As mentioned, visitation is not considered a right protected under due process for those convicted of a crime,[16] but what about the impact that strict and expensive visitation has on the families of prisoners who are innocent? The state cannot punish those who have not been convicted of a crime.[17] Forcing a family to go into debt, endure unwarranted searches, or even lose the option of seeing their loved ones altogether is tantamount to punishing a family for having a criminal relative. No one should have to go into debt so that a child may see their mother or father. This issue needs to be examined further to ensure that prisons can maintain their security while avoiding punishing inmates’ families for the dire crime of loving someone who made a mistake.

[2] Peter Wagner & Bernadette Rabuy, Following the Money of Mass Incarceration, PRISON POL’Y INITIATIVE (Jan. 25, 2017),
[3] William D. Bales & Daniel P. Mears, Inmate Social Ties and the Transition to Society, 45 J. OF RSCH. IN CRIME AND DELINQ. 287, 287-321 (Aug. 1, 2008)
[4] Evans v. Johnson, 808 F.2d 1427 (11th Cir. 1987)
[5] Id.
[6] Kentucky Dep’t of Corrections v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454 (1989)
[7] Id.
[8] Beatrix Lockwood & Nicole Lewis, The Long Journey to Visit a Family Member in Prison, THE MARSHALL PROJECT (Dec. 18, 2019, 6:00 AM),
[9] Neumeyer v. Beard, 412 F.3d 210 (3rd Cir. 2005)
[11] Id at 53.
[12] Jack Smith IV, ‘Video visitation’ is ending in-person prison visits – and prisons are going to make a ton of money, BUSINESS INSIDER (May 5, 2016, 8:20 PM),
[14] Kathleen J. Ferraro et al., Problems of Prisoners’ Families: The Hidden Costs of Imprisonment, 4 J. OF FAM. ISSUES 575, 575-591 (Dec. 1983)
[15] Peter Wagner & Daniel Kopf, The Racial Geography of Mass Incarceration, PRISON POL’Y INITIATIVE (Jul. 2015),
[16] Kentucky Dep’t of Corrections v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454 (1989)
[17] Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979).