Prison visits are critical for maintaining the family unit. They serve as a relationship lifeline for everyone until we are reunited with our loved ones. The type of visit and what to expect can differ dramatically depending on the prison and its security level. So, with that in mind, we’ll cover some of the basics applicable to the Federal system to help prepare you for what to expect.

For people incarcerated prior to trial (either because they could not afford to pay or were refused bond), they can be held in either a county jail or federal detention center, depending on availability. Most county jails only provide for video visits but visitors need to actually show up to the jail in order to connect in. This can be hugely inconvenient and leave both the inmate and visitor heavy-hearted because of the lack of physical contact and intimacy. My father took the 4-1/2 hour drive from South Florida to Tampa monthly, for almost a year. It was always great to see him, even that way, but we made a conscious decision not to have my kids join him. I was still looking at a lot of time at that point and the “no-contact” visits seemed counter-productive. I knew things would change once I got to prison, so we decided to wait. It felt like torture, broke my spirit and was unbelievably rough on the kids. Was it the right decision? Who knows? Had my sentence been shorter, it might have altered the equation. That’s something you’ll need to decide for yourself, based on your circumstance.

The upside to county jails is that the hours for visit are more convenient and the dress codes aren’t as strict. You’ll need to check with the specific county jail because they each have their own rules and quirks, most of which you can find on their website. Visits during pre-trial incarceration at a federal detention center, have a lot in common with visits later to be had in prison (post conviction and sentencing), and it all starts with visitor information forms and the dress code. An inmate can sign immediate family up directly with the Unit Counselor. You’ll need to be persistent, though, because detention center Counselors are notorious for making themselves scarce. There’s little accountability since detention centers are temporary way stations.

Only immediate family members may visit you at a detention center and you will require social security or passport numbers for everyone and an address. This will get updated once you get to prison based on your Pre-Sentencing Report, so make sure to include all family members when you’re interviewed for that Report by your Probation Officer. As for anyone else (including ex-spouses), they’re only allowed to visit once you’re in a prison and then only after you’ve mailed out a special form to be completed, signed and mailed back directly to your new Unit Counselor. That Unit Counselor then does a background check. Past criminal history is not an automatic dinger but it sure doesn’t help – the Counselor has discretion. This process can take weeks or longer, so plan accordingly.

Visitors must also adhere to a dress code that generally precludes shorts, tank tops, torn pants, open-toed shoes, clothing that’s too tight or the same color as that used by the inmates at your prison, cell phones, watches, wallets and currency in excess of $25. They take this stuff seriously. My lawyer was once turned away for wearing a green dress, whose color bore little resemblance to our green uniforms. The complete list of “no-nos” can be found on the BOP website. One of the most forgotten items is underwire bras, which has sadly prevented many a visit. It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for cheap clothing stores nearby, just in case. Even seasoned visitors sometimes forget and can remedy a clothing miscue at a local thrift store. All visitors over the age of 18 must bring a valid ID – as they say, no ID, no visit, no exceptions. Check in advance about prison visiting hours. Some have all day affairs five days a week, while others like the Miami Federal prison camp only allow inmates one visit a week during a 6-1/2 hour window. Regardless of the facility, you are limited to 5 adult visitors at a time (minor children are not counted). Holiday visits are a crapshoot. Some prisons have them and others don’t, or they don’t include every federal holiday, even though they’re supposed to. A notice to inmates will normally be sent out in advance to let you know. Also, visitors are advised to plan around the 10 am count on weekends and holidays. At Lows or higher, entrances and exits stop around 9:15 am and do not resume until 11 am. A visitor could be stuck in visit or waiting outside to have one during that time. At Camps, entrances are halted but visitors can leave at any time.

Be prepared for the prison experience coming through security. You’ll drive into a parking lot, like everything’s normal, until you hit the inner sanctum. From there, it’s like going through TSA but worse. There’s also a need to fill out forms and do a lot of waiting. On the other side of things, inmates are being called in their unit or over a compound loudspeaker. At a detention center, there’s an escort from your unit and full body strip search both coming in and going out. Inmates can expect similar treatment at a Low security facility or higher, but with one less strip search. Visits at a Camp are much more user-friendly for both visitors and inmates alike. Visitors will only get wanded coming in and inmates, thankfully, avoid any kind of search whatsoever.

Now it’s time to discuss the visit. I vividly remember seeing my kids for the first time after over a year. My then 9-year-old was grabbing and studying my face and the 3-year-old only remembered me as a concept, but showered me with love just the same. “Are you still going to be my daddy?” were words that stung worse than any pain imaginable and still haunt me to this day. I fought off tears as I hugged them and swore I would do all I could to get back as soon as possible. How does one explain six more years to go to small children? Nonetheless, just being with them after so much time apart made it one of the happiest days of my life, until they left. I went back to my bunk and slunk under the covers for hours with the pain lingering for days. Don’t worry, though, visits get more normal over time. In any event, different security levels come with different levels of restriction so be aware of that. Plus, always remember, visits can be cancelled at any time, even at the last minute. After all, it’s prison. While prison-wide lockdowns are more common at higher security facilities, they even occur at Camps.

At a detention center you can expect a table with affixed chairs and designated seating. One hug and kiss at the beginning and end of visit and, perhaps, you’ll get away with occasionally holding hands – that’s it. There are vending machines with overpriced sandwiches, snacks and drinks but only the visitor may get up to use them. At a Low security prison or higher, you’ll generally sit side-by-side and turning to speak to each other, as well as fraternizing with other inmates or visitors, are frowned upon. The same one hug, one kiss rule applies but they’ll be more liberal about holding hands. Kids older than a few years are technically not allowed on your lap but it all depends on the officers on duty that day. Some aren’t as “by the book” as others. The same goes for kids getting a bit rambunctious or playing with other kids. I had a number of visits on the verge of immediate termination because my young ones would not sit still. Yet, we survived unscathed till I got to a Camp where the rules are a lot more liberally applied. I’d go up with my children to pick candy from the machines, introduce prison friends to my family and, most importantly, get all the hugs and kisses I could handle. Now, those were some great visits.

Some prisons run special visit events with the kids in mind. It might be a book reading and giveaway, thanks to donations, or a “paint and punch”. These are typically done as an incentive for inmates taking Parenting classes. I advise you to make the most of them since they are few and far in between. The Miami Low and Camp held less than a half dozen during my six years there. I wish they’d held more. Every facility has children’s books to be read and shared and there may be loaner decks of cards (you may not bring your own anything, except a diaper bag with the bare minimum). At Camps, they even have simple board games to help pass the time. It’s no great secret that kids easily get bored. That’s the biggest struggle you have to contend with in enjoying your visit. Your spouse will also be vying for attention. I was so exhausted after some visits just trying to entertain all of them and seeing the frowns develop as they felt short-changed. I can laugh about it now but it was surprisingly stressful, in the moment.

Most visits are care free, remembering old times, sharing day-to-day events and hopeful planning for the future. Then again, sometimes there are important life issues that must be discussed. On any given day, you’ll see tears, laughs and heated conversations all around you. Sometimes it’s your turn. We take each day as it comes and hope for the best.

Some visits are with attorneys. They can technically come during what are otherwise non-visiting hours, coordinated through your Unit Counselor, but prisons make that complicated. One time my attorney even showed up with a printed approval in hand, only to be turned away, costing me over $600 for his time in the process. I’m far from alone on this. That’s why you’re probably best off to have your lawyer come during visiting hours. You can expect a room or two set aside, but those fill up quickly. Therefore, there’s a good chance you’ll be speaking in hushed tones off to the side in the main room, along with everyone else.

You may also notice people in orange jumpsuits engaged in visits, if you are at a Low security prison or higher. Those people are from the SHU (Special Housing Unit, and pronounced “shoe”), the prison within the prison. They’re housed there for major infractions or due to a serious investigation but typically still get visits. Then again, sometimes they don’t. Inmates can also be restricted from visit because of medical emergencies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a family make the long trip to visit only to be told that their loved one is not available and the officer can’t tell them why, for security reasons. Therefore, it’s always a good idea for inmates to have a buddy system, with email and/or phone contacts to each other’s family, just in case.

Finally, visits can also be restricted as a form of punishment. Getting caught with a cell phone, drugs or alcohol can be devastating. You can lose your privileges for up to a year and cost yourself two months of good time, extending your prison stay. Ironically, the prison system believes it does a good job in helping to foster family relationships through visits. One former Director of the BOP included in a letter on the subject of Parenting, “The staff in the BOP are committed to giving you opportunities to enhance your relationship with your children and your role as parent….I hope your family is able to bring your children to visit you – there is no substitute for seeing your children, looking them in the eye and letting them know you care about them.” I couldn’t help but wonder what they had in mind as they reduced our prison visits from 9 a month down to 4 at the Camp in Miami.

As we get ready to bid this article goodbye, I’ll add that the end of the visit goodbyes are the toughest part. However, the closer we get to the end of the road, the more they are filled with hope. Thanks to the long parade of visits, we are all on the verge of a bright new day, a new beginning. And, we’re all excited to make the most of things, with greater appreciation for our time together, this next time around.