Visitation: Can it do more for juvenile offenders?
According to Haley Walker’s article, School-to-Prison Pipeline, juvenile offenders are “ten times more likely” than the rest of the children in America to have mental health conditions. Many different reasons explain this disproportionate rate, including the removal of these juveniles from their social support systems.
Kathryn Monahan wrote in The Effects of Visitation on Incarcerated Juvenile Offenders: How Contact with the Outside Impacts Adjustment on the Inside that when youth enter the juvenile legal system, they are separated from their friends, family members and wider community. The separation exacerbates or creates mental health conditions in these youth, such as depression and anxiety, especially at the beginning stages of incarceration, when the separation is freshest and compounded with other new stressors. When these mental health conditions are left untreated, it can lead to substance abuse, self-harm, disobedience/misconduct, future re-offending and further preventable harms. Therefore, to prevent these dangerous consequences, maintaining social ties throughout incarceration is an especially important form of mental health care.
Due to the importance of social ties, many rehabilitative efforts within the juvenile legal system have focused on promoting community in some way or another. Visitation is one of these efforts. Plenty of research concludes that “youth who receive visits adjust better to confinement and more successfully reenter society upon release.” Additionally, as Brae Campion Young describes in Visitation Policies in Juvenile Residential Facilities in all 50 States, visitation has been implemented and frequently utilized by inmates since the mid-20th century. While juvenile offenders at one point had unrestricted access to visitors, legislatures have recently constrained the practice. Young noted that, in Overton v. Bazzetta in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states could impose certain visitation restrictions, even on juvenile offenders, “for security reasons[,] as long as those restrictions do not prevent family from contacting incarcerated persons in other ways (i.e., letters and phone calls).” This is just one of many examples of the shift away from utilizing the full potential of visitation as a rehabilitative tool.
Lately, research on visitation has begun to illuminate the “black box” surrounding the actual visitation experience of these juvenile offenders. For example, in the 2019 study Far From Home: An Examination of the Juvenile Visitation Experience and the Barriers to Getting There, the authors argued that while visitation does have positive effects on the mental health of juvenile offenders, the visitation experience widely varied. Of the juveniles involved in the study who received visitors, the majority reported that they had positive experiences. Roughly 14% reported negative experiences, especially if they received visits from guardians or child protective services instead of family members. However, of the participants who did not receive visitors, only 3% “felt that their commitment experiences were worsened, family relationships weakened, or future outcomes in jeopardy because they were not visited.” Based on these results, the authors concluded that while “visitation may not be universally beneficial and … the lack of visitation may not be generally detrimental,” authorities should still continue to implement visitation as a mental health rehabilitation tool, and they should make it less restricted.
In short, research has shown the overall general positive effects of visitation as a rehabilitative tool in promoting social ties amongst juvenile offenders. However, practitioners must acknowledge that visitation might not be a beneficial experience for every offender in the juvenile legal system. With that in mind, practitioners should concentrate on conducting research that seeks to promote more universally positive visitation experiences or providing other forms of face-to-face contact to compensate for juveniles who may not be able to receive visits from family members or friends.