AUGUSTA — Motivated at least in part by a desire to keep drugs out of the hands of prisoners, the state is eyeing a proposal that would eliminate a requirement that inmates in county jails have access to contact visits.

Joseph Jackson, coordinator of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said Monday the move would bar prisoners — even those who haven’t been convicted — from giving a child a hug or holding a spouse’s hand.

He called the proposal “a giant step backward” and harmful to the goal of getting people back on track.

“They are attempting to take away human touch and the ability of inmates to see their loved ones in person,” Jackson said.

The new policy proposal, which runs counter to a move in the Legislature to expand visitation options, would provide for “video only” visits that often cost the family money.

Jan Collins of Wilton told legislators what it’s like to be limited to video visits.
She said that when she visited her son at the York County Jail, more than two hours’ drive away from her home, she had to see him on a tiny screen that often didn’t work right.


“The fisheye lens of the video camera distorts the image and the voice can be difficult to hear with so many people talking in a very small space,” Collins said.

She said she didn’t get to touch or hold her son as she sat in one room and he sat in another down the hall. “He felt distant and isolated and alone,” Collins told lawmakers.

Public safety officials are trying to find ways to keep drugs out of the hands of prisoners, though visitors are routinely searched.

Robert Young, the chief deputy of Piscataquis County, testified in May on behalf of the Maine Sheriffs Association against a bill that would have broadened visitation rights in Maine jails.

Young told lawmakers, who plan to take up the measure again next year, that “one of the most difficult challenges” facing sheriffs “is preventing the trafficking of drugs into the jails.”

Typically, he said, drugs reach the hands of inmates from trustees or contact visits.


The week he testified, Young said, “We intercepted an inmate with a small balloon containing Suboxone that had been slipped to him by his girlfriend during a regular visit.”

“We do not allow physical contact but they were able to transfer the balloon through mouth-to-mouth contact when they parted,” he said. The inmate “swallowed the balloon and then recovered it from his stool later.”

“It’s important to note that the size of the drugs during transfer can be as small as a postage stamp,” Young said.

“In York County last year, four inmates overdosed on drugs that were obtained through contact visits. Fortunately, all four survived,” Young added.

Jackson said, though, that even jails that don’t allow contact visits suffer from overdoses among inmates, proving that drugs are getting in through other means.

Barring contact visits, which are required for only an hour every other week, makes it more difficult for prisoners to remain close to their family at a time when they need them most, he said.


He said that more than 20,000 children in Maine have been impacted by the incarceration of a parent. To keep them away from that parent doesn’t make for good policy, Jackson said.

Jackson said not every prisoner should have the ability to have contact visits — some pose dangers or have proven to be untrustworthy, he said — but there ought to be a way for many to continue to have regular contact with the people they need.

Jackson said that is especially true in county jails, where many inmates haven’t been convicted of anything yet and may be innocent.

Young told legislators contact visits also require more staff time.

“Monitoring contact visits requires inmates to be searched after each visit,” he said. “It also requires the visitors to pass through a metal detector upon entry and to be monitored throughout the visit.”

“Not all visits end at the same time, so extra officers must be available to escort the inmates back to their pods,” Young said.


Speaking in support of the visits, Amber Jeskey-Scheurer, a former corrections officer who lives in Union, told the Legislature she saw for herself that “on the inside, mail, phone calls and visits are the most important things in an inmate’s life.”

“I have witnessed this firsthand, watching inmates holding the hands of their loved ones, giving brief hugs to their children, it brings the human element back to the inmate, reminding them there are people who love them and are waiting for them to be released, who are promising them a future,” she said.

“Hearing the voice of a loved one on the phone, holding the hand of your spouse, or holding your child in the visit room is all you have to connect you to the outside world,” Jeskey-Scheurer said.

Jackson said the state Department of Corrections is holding a hearing on the proposed rule change Tuesday as part of its oversight of the county jail system. Corrections officials Monday were not able to confirm that.

This story may be updated.

The Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn.

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