Update on Contact Visits on Death Row

posted Jun 7, 2010, 11:21 AM by Kathryn Hamoudah   [ updated Aug 31, 2012, 8:29 AM by GFADP staff ]

We are writing today to provide an update on our campaign to restore contact visits for people on death row and their loved ones.

Last Thursday, a delegation from Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty attended the monthly Georgia Department of Corrections (“GDC”) Board meeting in Atlanta. The delegation was made up of people who visit Georgia Diagnostic and Classifications Prison in Jackson (“Jackson”) including friends, family members and clergy of men on death row as well as a victim’s family member and GFADP, New Hope House and Southern Center for Human Rights staff. We attended the meeting with the intention of speaking directly to the top-decision makers for the Georgia prison system about our opposition to the policy that removed contact visitation for people visiting men on death row.

Though the GDC Board meetings occur monthly and are open to the public, it is very rare that citizens ever attend them. Both GDC Board Members and staff seemed surprised and nervous when they saw our group filling more than half the seats available for the audience. At the beginning of the meeting, the GDC Board Chairman Larry Wynn asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves. When each of us got our turn, we stood up and said our names, where we are from, and that we were there today to ask the department to reinstate contact visits on death row.  

Family member and former GFADP Board Member Steve Colwell was the final person to introduce himself in our group. He asked for an opportunity to discuss reinstating contact visits with the GDC. He then handed personally to GDC Commissioner Brian Owens a gift bag filled with hundreds of Mother’s Day Cards signed by people calling for the GDC to restore contact visits at Jackson.  

At the close of the meeting, GDC Assistant Commissioner Derrick Schofield approached us and said that he wanted to meet immediately with a few of us. Five of us met with him and Corrections Division Director Michael Nail for about 45 minutes to talk about the hardships that visitors and the men are experiencing as a result of this new policy. We discussed that it was not only the visitation policy that was a problem, but the fact that as a result of this change it was no longer possible to share food from the vending machines during visitation hours.  We also brought up our dissatisfaction with the policy that keeps them men in lockdown 23 hours a day (though they also get an additional 2.5 hours out twice a week).

The folks who represented all visitors to Jackson in this small meeting were incredibly strong and compelling, and GFADP is deeply grateful for their courage and effectiveness in speaking out about this unjust policy. The victim’s family member that was present spoke about her choice in moving away from vengeance and bitterness and towards forgiveness for the man who killed her family members, and how this new policy negatively impacted their relationship. The family members who were there spoke honestly and emotionally about the challenges of having a loved one in prison and particularly on death row – from the high costs of phone calls and food, to living with the knowledge that your lived one will eventually be executed. The GDC officials were clearly moved, even agitated, after hearing this perspective.

Assistant Commissioner Schofield informed us that the GDC has backed off their firm policy of no contact visits at Jackson. He said that the wire mesh screen at visitation would soon be replaced with plexiglass and phones. He also said they will be implementing a policy in which the incarcerated men can earn one to two contact visits per quarter if they receive no disciplinary reports (also known as “DRs”). He said that clergy contact visits would be restored. He said that their initial deadline to implement these new policies was July 1, 2010 but that he was not sure if they would make this deadline. Assistant Commissioner Schofield also apologized for the food situation during visitation and promised to fix it. (As an aside, we received a call this morning from someone who visited Jackson over the weekend who reports that the food situation was indeed fixed during visitation yesterday.) 

At the end of the meeting, we thanked Assistant Commissioner Schofield and Corrections Division Director Michael Nail for taking the time to hear from us and for committing to changing this policy soon. We informed them that we would continue to speak out against this policy until it is actually changed. We let them know that we are also available to partner with the GDC in reaching a workable solution for all.

We will keep you posted on further actions and developments. Today, we are grateful for the willingness of GFADP members to speak out against injustice and take a courageous stand on behalf of all of us, particularly for the men on death row and their families and loved ones. The struggle continues!

With hope,
Sara, Kathryn and Sam