Whenever you are preparing to visit a prison inmate for the first time, there are definitely things you need to know. If you don’t arrive at the prison fully prepared, it could result in the prison staff denying your visit. And, since most people have to travel to visit their incarcerated loved one, you definitely want to know the rules ahead of time; you don’t want to waste a day and be disappointed.
As I have said before, nothing is universal when it comes to prison because every facility has their own rules and operating systems. However, there are some commonalities in prison visiting rooms.
So let’s get to today’s topic: Visiting an inmate for the first time – 10 Things to Know.
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
One of the most important things you need to know is the visiting room dress code. If you are not dressed appropriately, prison guards will not allow you in the visiting room. Every prison requires conservative, modest clothing in the visiting room.
On Prison Insight, we do our best to let you know the exact dress code for each facility. But, if the prison doesn’t publish that information, remember to keep things conservative. In other words, act like you are dressing for your own court date.
Avoid tight-fitting and see-through clothing, ripped clothing, shorts, and bare midriffs. It’s best to keep things simple with a regular shirt and pants. Just don’t wear clothing that features gang references, profanity, or sexually explicit images.
Also, wear shoes and socks (no sandals or bare feet), and make sure you wear undergarments because those are required. Another big thing to remember is to avoid wearing the same color as the inmate’s uniforms.
Some wear khaki, others wear blue, green, or orange. Be aware of the inmate’s clothing color and do not wear it.
Contraband is a huge problem in prisons, so visitors are not allowed to bring anything with them when visiting an inmate. Most facilities will limit visitors to bringing only their photo ID and money for the vending machines.
Visitors with infants can also bring diapers and food for the kids, and those needing life-saving medication can usually bring one dose in the original container.
When you are getting checked in, the officers will let you know what is allowed inside the visiting room. If you are carrying anything that is banned, you will be required to take the items back to your vehicle or put them in a locker in the lobby.
Absolutely no electronic devices are allowed in any prison visiting room. You must keep your phone, tablets, watches, and computers locked in your vehicle or leave them at home. If you want to take a picture with your inmate, most facilities have some kind of picture program where you can buy a picture that is taken by a prison photographer.
Visiting schedules can be extremely confusing because not every inmate is available for a visit every time the visiting room is open. Some prisons rotate their schedule based on housing units, and others rotate on inmate ID numbers. There are many reasons why a visiting schedule could change, so make sure you double check before you leave. It’s also a good idea to call the facility before you leave to make sure the prison isn’t on lockdown.
When I first got to prison, my dad drove three hours to come visit me on what I thought was a regular visiting day. However, it was a special “food visit” day for another housing unit, and I wasn’t able to visit him. He was turned away, and I felt terrible because I didn’t check ahead of time. If one of us would have double checked it would have saved a lot of time and heartbreak.
Most facilities require visitors to be approved by the Department of Corrections before they are allowed to visit an inmate. Each facility has their own visitor application that must be filled out and approved by the DOC in advance.
In the Prison Insight directory, the visiting rules are available for each facility. When available, we provided links to the visiting application so you can fill one out and send it in right away instead of waiting for your inmate to mail you a paper form to fill out.
Before you are allowed to enter the visiting room you will be subject to a search. In addition to walking through a metal detector, you will be pat searched for contraband. Some facilities take things even further with K-9 searches for drugs. If they believe that you are carrying contraband, you will be detained and searched further.
Anyone caught attempting to carry drugs or electronics into a correctional facility will most likely be arrested, and they could face their own felony charges.
Prisons don’t play when it comes to time. Everything is on a strict, tight schedule, so you can’t be late to a visit. If you don’t show up in time to get processed, you will not be allowed to visit. Make sure you know the processing times in advance, so you know when you are supposed to be there.
There is also the chance that the visiting room will be busy and full, so arriving a little early or on time is essential if you want to get the most out of the visiting period.
Most facilities will allow you to bring approximately $20 in dollar bills and change for the vending machine. While there are some prisons that allow debit cards, most restrict the vending money to cash or coins, and they must be carried in a clear, plastic bag.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it was that my visitors brought some change for the vending machines. A cold Coke with a vending machine cheeseburger and some Fritos has never tasted as good as it did in the prison visiting room.
For the few items that you are allowed to bring into the visiting room, you will be required to carry them in a clear plastic bag – even baby items. Officers want to be able to see everything at all times, so everything must be see-through and bags will be searched.
While visits with family and friends are essential during an inmate’s rehabilitation, they aren’t easy. Seeing your loved one in a prison uniform will be difficult, and the time will fly. It will seem like you have to leave just seconds after you arrive.
As a former inmate, I know how amazing it is just to have a nice, regular conversation with your friends and family in the visiting room. There is no need to do anything special or overthink it, just show up and talk.
Be prepared to experience a range of serious emotions. It was always amazing to see my family and friends in the visiting room to get out of my prison cell for a few hours, but it was always excruciating to see them walk out the door and not be able to go with them.
Is there something about prison visits I didn’t cover, but you still want to know? Ask me in the comments below.
Sources: Natalie DePriest - My Own Prison Experience General Visiting Information https://www.bop.gov/inmates/visiting.jsp
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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