Lawsuit threatened over proposed prison visitation rules

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Two civil-rights organizations want to halt proposed changes to rules about who can visit state prisoners.

Earlier this summer, Mississippi Department of Corrections employees quietly announced a coming policy stating that 10 members of each prisoner’s immediate family would be allowed on a visitation list at any given time. The list includes parents, grandparents, spouses, children, siblings as well as some stepchildren and parental figures; most others would be prohibited, according to memos from prison wardens.

Paloma Wu and Jody Owens III of the ACLU of Mississippi and Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center, respectively, said that enforcement of the policy would be “unconstitutional, violate federal laws, and would therefore expose MDOC to suit in federal court.”

In the letter, heavily foot-noted with legal precedents and references to news articles, attorneys for the ACLU and SPLC argue that if implemented the policy would violate prisoners’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights as well as violate federal laws that permit inmates to have visits from clergy members and maintain family relationships. Additionally,  the groups say, the policy would more adversely affect African Americans, who represent a disproportionately large part of the prison population.

Wu, the ACLU of Mississippi’s legal director, said prohibiting clergy visit would make Mississippi’s visitation rules among the nation’s most restrictive.

Grace Fisher, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said the agency has not changed its visitation policy.

“When and if we decide to make a policy change regarding this privilege, we will let the public know,” Fisher said in an email.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Mississippi Department of Corrections did not announce a policy change. Rather, wardens at MDOC facilities sent memos to staff members of a coming change in policy.