Hoping to weave stronger social safety nets for inmates after they are released, the Texas prison system is making it easier for family members to visit loved ones behind bars.
"We took a closer look and we understand that it's incredibly important to continue those relationships that they had in the free world into prison," said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The changes took effect in March, and prison board members received an update Friday.
Visitors can now check online to see if the prisoner they want to see is eligible for visits before they drive, sometimes hundreds of miles, to one of the state's more than 100 prisons. If they travel 250 miles or more, visitors will be given more time, and they can visit every weekend instead of three times a month.
Accommodations for visitors are also improving, Clark said.
Visitors are not allowed to bring in food, so they're restricted to vending machines. After conducting a survey of about 3,000 inmate relatives, TDCJ has moved to provide healthier options in the vending machines, and is now allowing visitors to bring in a total of $25 in coins to purchase vending machine drinks and food.
Other changes include relaxing the dress code for visitors. Modest attire is still required, but visitors can wear shorts.
The 17 prison units that receive the most visitors have extended visitation hours. And the prison system is trying to make the visitation area better for children and younger family members by providing books to read and coloring pages with crayons.
"The vast major of these offenders are going to get out someday so it's important to continue those relationships," Clark said.