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2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 1
January 2002

Prison Visitation Basics

Visits between children in foster care and their parents are important for many reasons. They maintain important family relationships, give social workers a chance to assess and document birth family progress, and are strongly correlated with successful family reunification (Hess & Mintun, 1992; Simms & Bolden, 1991).

But what does one do when one or more of the child's parents are in prison? Most social workers, especially those new to the job, have questions and uncertainties when it comes to working with the prison system, preparing the child, and knowing what to expect. The following, based on conversations with experienced social workers, supervisors, and information from Wright & Seymour (see sidebar, Want to Know More?), is intended to give you a leg up on this daunting task.

Locate the parent. Call the NC Department of Corrections Combined Records Office at 919/716-3200.

Get the prison contact information. To obtain the phone number for the prison, call the NC Division of Prisons at 919/733-3226, or use the prison locator on their web site <>.

Contact the prison. Unless you already have working relationships with individuals at the prison, you may want to begin by speaking with the assistant superintendent of custody and operations. This person will refer you to the inmate's case manager (all inmates in the NC prison system have a case manager) or prison social worker. This person will help you arrange a visit and explain prison procedures to you. The visit may be planned for an inmate's official visiting hours, or special arrangements may be made to accommodate a family visit of this type. Generally, correctional institutions for women will have better visiting facilities than those for men.

Your ability to support parent-child bonds, assess parent progress, and make an informed decision about permanency will hinge in part on the personal relationships you are able to form with prison staff, on your knowledge of the prison system, and on your understanding of the obstacles you are likely to face. Therefore, we suggest the following:

Visit the prison at least once before taking a child on a visit. "The physical structure of the prison, combined with prison security procedures and armed security personnel, create a strict and intimidating environment. An initial visit on your own will ensure a more controlled emotional reaction and give you some time to think about how to explain this setting and its procedures to the child" (Wright & Seymour, p. 57).

Be prepared for disappointments. Just like ordinary visits, things do not always go as planned. For example, you may travel to the prison and then be unable to visit the inmate because of security concerns unrelated to the inmate you're visiting (Wright & Seymour). Or, visitation privileges may be taken away or reduced because of the inmate's behavior.

Be prepared for other challenges. These include: Distance. In state prisons in the U.S., more than half of all inmates are housed more than 100 miles from their homes (BJS, p. 5). This is even more common among women inmates, since there are fewer institutions for them. Logistics. It can be difficult coordinating transportation for sibling groups, especially if they are living with different caretakers (Wright & Seymour, p. 61). Long waits. These are often connected with security, and may be punctuated by searches that visitors find uncomfortable or humiliating.

Visitation and Jails

"While jails are generally closer to home than prisons, they may be even less child-friendly. Unlike prisons, jails almost universally require that visits be noncontact, with communication restricted to use of a phone through glass or mesh. In addition, because the anticipated stay is shorter, they are less apt to be attuned to child/parent relationship needs or to have special programs that support parenting" (Wright & Seymour, p. 63).


Mumola, C. J. (2000). Bureau of Justice Statistics special report: Incarcerated parents and their children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice [August 2000, NCJ 182335].

Wright, L. E. & Seymour, C. B. (2000). Working with children and families separated by incarceration: A handbook for child welfare agencies. Washington, DC: CWLA Press.