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The prison’s security structure influences and impacts all those who find themselves in contact with it, whether directly or indirectly. As such, family members of incarcerated people are no exception. This section discusses various correctional practices and politics, and their direct and indirect effects on family members: the communication of information, goods that relatives can or cannot provide to their incarcerated loved ones, telephone procedures, postal service, and ways in which family members must register as visitors. The visitation issue is addressed in-depth, by detailing the different control and admission procedures that family members must go through, as well as the various types of visits permitted in detention facilities. Given that intermediaries such as correctional personnel most often facilitate family members’ communication with the prison, we will then explore participants’ relationships with correctional staff, focusing on the aspects that participants deemed most important to them. Finally, this chapter will conclude by discussing the prison system’s limitations and shortcomings, as identified in participants’ testimonies. 

1.   The effects of correctional policies and practices on family members 

Family members who choose to maintain contact with and provide support for their incarcerated relatives must learn to understand and submit to numerous institutional rules and regulations. Rosalyne’s testimony illustrates diverse themes, which will be analyzed in the following sections. 

He sensed that the battery in his hearing aid was about to fail. So he called me and said, “Look, go to this place with this battery number for my hearing aid and bring it to the reception desk.” The next morning, at 9:00 a.m., I was at the store opening to get his battery because he wouldn’t hear at all. Then, I go to [the prison], carry the small bag with the battery. “Oh no, ma’am, it doesn’t work like that.” I said, “But how does it work?” “It’s the prison nurse who will judge if your son needs his battery.” And here I am, a kind of answer that is totally illogical for me, that it is the prison nurse who will judge whether or not he needs his battery for his hearing aid. […] “Your son has to go to the nurse with his device and his battery, and then your son will call you back when he has seen the nurse to give you the procedure.” I said, so I was naive because sometimes I’m naive, “So he sees the nurse today?” “Oh no ma’am, it’s by appointment. I said, “But when is he going to see the nurse?” “I can’t answer that, ma’am. And the person who is at the reception, she can’t give me an answer because there is no communication, there is no coherence between all these people who manage a building. So, she, she doesn’t have the information, she can’t give it to me… I said, “Is my son going to be informed that he has to re-communicate with me, after seeing the nurse?” “I don’t know ma’am” […] It’s very big there. It’s very hard to take, it’s hard to deal with. Very difficult. When I got into my car, honestly, from prison, I started to cry and I said, “Come on, it doesn’t make sense. He won’t hear anything.” So, how many days will it last […] he couldn’t hear anything and you know, going out, coming in from your cell, coming to eat, not eating, listening to television when you are deaf. So, he too had to live through some moments. So, he calls me back 48 hours later […] So I go back and I ask the person “Is my son going to get his battery today?” “No ma’am, we have to check here to see what’s in your bag that you’re giving us.” I said “So how many days?” He went like this: “7 days.” […] So, this is something you don’t know, you don’t know how, [or] why. – Rosalyne, mother.

A. Access to information

Participants provided a unanimous account regarding the lack of information that the correctional system has made accessible and available to them. 

As for the internet, the sites are not up to date, we call, we never get an answer. It is almost unimaginable. – Zora, mother.

I am someone who is structured and organized. So the first question I ask the officer is: do you have a booklet that explains how the prison works for us? The contact visits, the visits in the trailers, whatever. What is your protocol for visitors, detailed. He says, “Oh, we don’t have that.” So I say, “Well, you must have someone who explains the sizes of the pictures, how many, what is this, what is that. What you can send, what you can’t send.” It’s always nebulous. – Normand, father.

Family members must discover the detention facility’s operating protocols and procedures, what is prohibited and permitted, for themselves. More often than not, family members learn by trial-and-error, marked by mistakes and reminders or reprimands from correctional staff. 

You learn as you go.  – Fanny, mother.

I didn’t know how things worked there.  I had no experience […] And so I go in. You know, I want to put money into the Canteen and, you know, I have my purse with me and, you know, the Guard was really rude, by the way. And, you know, “Do you have a cell phone?” “Yes,” and like, “Well, now you’re not allowed to have a cell phone past the Gate.” I’m like, “Well, I didn’t know this. How am I supposed to know?” There’s nothing at the Gate and really, so the first experience was that the guys at the jail shout at you. (crying) – Gina, mother.

Uh, a lot of frustration and then misunderstanding. That would really be the two main words I could give. Uh, because you, you don’t know what’s going on. Nobody talks to you, nobody talks to you. You don’t have a number to call […] in prison, when you go there, they tell you as little as possible, they don’t tell you anything. Uh, they don’t tell you the same things. Among themselves, they contradict each other […] If you do something wrong, they refuse you. That’s all! Then they don’t say why.  – Patricia, spouse.

Where the detained person is concerned, the institution’s silence is poignant. Family members in this study complained that they have not been informed of institutional transfers, loved ones’ injuries and hospital stays, prison or jail lockdowns, or changes in visiting hours, etc. 

Nobody called us to tell us that our son had been injured. Nobody called us. And anytime he was moved, nobody called us to say he was moved. – Diane, mother.

Not only are family members faced with a lack of information, but the little information they have access to is inconsistent. 

So, and now the, the rigidity of the system, you know, and the – It would be – The officers that were guarding it, you know, depended on who they were, they were enforcing the twenty-minute rule. So, on the last day, it was very rigid and we were told to, you know, leave and that was it. And, we didn’t know it was the last day. We found out later, when we came back to see him for the second time, they told us that he had been discharged from the ICU and was now in a recovery room. So we tried to go in and they said, “No, it’s – The protocol on the way back too, because he’s no longer in the ICU. He – But, they gave us twenty minutes – But, at that point, he hadn’t been able to – He hadn’t been forced to get up and walk because, you know, if you’ve been unconscious for ten days or so, and you have to be recovered enough to be able to – So, they kept saying he’d be sent back to the prison soon. And, I just couldn’t understand that he would be so rigid. So, by that time, he had been taken away on July 15, I think, and now it was July 26. So they went back. They said, “You can’t visit him or just once a day, you can visit him,” but that must not have happened because on the 27th they took him back to Bath. I went to visit him and they said, “He was taken back to max [maximum security]”. – Felicity, mother.

B. Institutional authorizations and prohibitions

Given that provincial jails and federal prisons offer various regulated means of contacting incarcerated people in Canada, it is generally the incarcerated person’s responsibility to provide their family members with the contact procedure information. It is important to note that there are specific procedures one must follow to obtain “authorized family member” status, which is then subject to additional institutional regulations and restrictions regarding phone calls and providing money and clothing to inmates. 

The institutions censor mail contents and containers, which participants discover over time as the prison and jail administrations return their mail to them opened and read. Varying types of paper and envelopes are permitted depending on the institution and, in some cases, even the letters or drawings themselves may be subject to prohibition depending on the pencils or crayons used to write and/or draw them. News clippings and Christmas cards with glitter and/or three-dimensional decorations/pop-ups are also prohibited. Further, the institutions only accept a certain number of photos by mail and they must adhere to institutional standards and formats. 

My son loves political cartoons. There was a big one about Donald Trump recently […] So I cut it out and sent it to R. Of course, I got it back because you’re not allowed to send anything from the newspaper and they’re not allowed to send newspapers. […] the cards you colour yourself, then you colour the envelope, fold it and write what you want on the card, put it in the envelope and seal it with a sticker. A sticker that doesn’t have glitter on it and has the same back as the stamp. You are allowed to put a stamp on an envelope. […] So I got all this stuff, I coloured it myself. I did hours of work […] you can’t send a stamp. When R moved, you know, it takes time to connect with the canteen and you have to place your order and the money has to be transferred. So you end up with a four to six weeks delay where you don’t hear anything from the person because they don’t have a stamp. (laughs) You know? That kind of thing drives me crazy. Well, I wrote a letter with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. So I didn’t send him a stamp. […] Of course, I got it all back. So not only did he not receive my letter, he didn’t receive it […] because it’s “contraband.” The “contraband” drives me crazy. And the most recent one, on my letter, I put my address sticker that I put on for six years. All of a sudden, they forbid me to put my address sticker on. Which I have no problem with. I can write it on my thing. But I used it (…) for six years and nobody cared.  – Diane, mother.

In addition to the delays inherent to communicating via mail, family members consider this method of contact to be unreliable and vulnerable to violation of their privacy, given that correctional staff open and read their letters.  

Actually, posting a letter is unreliable depending on the attitude of the inmate, they could withhold – It’s illegal but they do it. They can withhold personal mail. And they have done it. […] I don’t know where that letter went. No, some letters just get “lost” all the time.  – Mona, sister. 

Material provisions (whether they are mailed to or deposited at the prison) are important, if not necessary, to ensure that the incarcerated person has access to their own clothing (this is permitted in some jails and federal prisons). These provisions are strictly regulated, and relatives are not always aware of the existing institutional restrictions. Relatives who meet certain institutional criteria regarding their relationship with the detained person may bring clothing and/or personal effects to their incarcerated loved one during specific periods (typically within 30 days of institutional transfers and prior to court hearings). Family members may occasionally receive authorization to purchase certain items for their incarcerated relative from prison- or jail-approved suppliers. The prison or jail administration identifies these items and provides family members with a list to choose from.  

[…] I was bringing a watch for my son, but it’s not marked on the sheet that it takes only digital or needle watches, it doesn’t matter. It’s not marked, there’s nothing marked. And I arrive with a hand watch. […] Because it’s not clear. So, I arrive, I know that there are some with needles in the provincial. I arrive, and then the gentleman says, “Well, from today on, you need a digital watch. ”  – Normand, father.

Relatives are not permitted to purchase items or have their purchases delivered but must send the required amount of money to their incarcerated loved ones directly. Inmates may then purchase a limited variety and number of overpriced goods from the canteen. 

My son read The Economist by that time for about fourteen years. You know, since he was a teenager. […] I said, “I want to send him his subscription to The Economist. I’m just gonna reroute it over, over to you.” “Oh, no, no, no. We have the Canteen and he can get whatever magazine he wants from the Canteen.” I said, “That’s great. So, you have The Economist in the Canteen. Fabulous.” And they said, “No, no, we don’t have that.” […] I mean, it’s like that with every single thing. – Diane, mother.

And the food thing, as well, my son put money for the Canteen and, you know, … the Canteen, things are so expensive. Hugely expensive. And at first, I thought, well why is the jail profiting from this? Like, I don’t mind if it’s for buying new books for the inmates to read or whatever…. Well, are they having some company that charges $5 for a tube of toothpaste? That’s ridiculous. No one with other stores that we shop at, that are still making a lot of money, charge that. So, why is it okay to charge them more and the stress on the families and the expense of trying to provide something for them, to me it’s just, it’s just another insult and taking advantage of people that have no other choices. I don’t know.  – Gina, mother.

To send money donations, which allows detained individuals to make necessary purchases (phone card, meals, toiletries, etc.), family members must comply with strict authorization procedures after an account has been opened for the detained individual. This process can take four to six weeks, during which the inmate is not able to make purchases and is therefore dependent on donations from the institution and fellow prisoners. While money from family members may be transferred between federal penitentiaries, this is not the case at the provincial level as each establishment has its own system. As such, family members must often repeat these procedures so that their incarcerated loved ones may access funds.  

The length and frequency of phone calls are formally and informally regulated within each institution. In certain institutions, phones are limited in number and access time and are sometimes monitored by correctional staff. In addition to the material and institutional restrictions, power dynamics between inmates further affect inmates’ ability to phone their loved ones, as certain inmates monopolize and control access to phones within their unit or range. Given that family members cannot phone their incarcerated relatives directly, only those inmates with the means to purchase calling cards can call their loved ones. 

You have to pay for the phone calls he makes. There are processes and protocols in place in prisons. They can only make phone calls and they have to, by submitting a form in a timely manner, request a certain amount of money to put on their calling card which they then use to make calls. And your phone number has to be approved, pre-approved for them to call. Dem, spouse.

More often than not, it is the relatives who must accept collect calls at exorbitant prices. In order to receive these calls, relatives must be able to provide an approved landline number, not a cell phone number. 

We don’t have a landline, so the phone is a problem. He can’t, he couldn’t call me from [the prison] at all…After he moved to [another prison]…So the next time I remember talking to him at my sister’s house. We had to arrange a time for him to call me and for me to be there. That was it… It’s complicated, you know? It really was. Until he could get a phone card. Then he got his phone card and then it was, like, thirty days from then he could call me. It was forever and ever and ever. But eventually, he was able to call me. But it was costing us a hundred dollars a month and it’s not like we were talking for hours. I mean, he, he would tell me that the inmates that were there, that were – It wouldn’t pick up. They had rules, but they didn’t follow them, you know?  – Dem, spouse.

This restriction to landline numbers imposes additional costs on relatives and, above all, requires them to stay at home so as not to miss the expected call.

At first, he called me regularly, every day. And that’s another matter, the first month before I knew that collect calls are a fortune […]. The bill was up to $1000 […] but the other months after, it was… I talked less, but I had to cut the conversation. I would say to him “look, it’s not because I don’t want to talk to you, but there he would say that’s it I’ve tired you out”. He would say, “I’m going to stop tiring you”. “You don’t tire me, it’s because it costs a fortune”. […] And then when he called me collect, I had to get a house phone. I thought, yeah, but when I’m not at home? […] The first month it was $1600 but that’s it, we talked every day for an hour and after that, it was $500, $500, after that $400… – Georgette, mother.

The first time I met him at the beginning, when I met him, we talked, and… you’re never going to tell a guy who’s doing a life sentence, who doesn’t have a family, call when you’re bored. The first month, it cost me $1,200 for the phone, because I don’t know how much a collect call costs. – Mary, spouse.

If participants wish to visit their loved ones in detention, they must submit to the control of the prison authority to be investigated and approved as acceptable visitors. This approval process is often lengthy (3 to 4 weeks for an accelerated procedure and up to 6 to 8 weeks under normal circumstances) and must be repeated in cases of federal transfers.

When he left X to go to the federal government, I was… oh my god I think (cries)… three to four weeks without news, without phone calls. Then, there was a document to fill out and then before it was approved, all that, it took at least 6 to 8, 8 weeks or so before I was allowed to go and visit him.   – Joyce, mother.

I didn’t have direct contact with him, really, until six weeks. Something like that. That’s what I remember. I went to see him once or twice in X while he was there and then I couldn’t go see him when he was in V – Well, it was all the paperwork that had to be filled out and all that and I tried to get things done ahead of time, and they wouldn’t allow it. It was like, ‘Oh, no, you have to wait until he gets here’. “Well, I know where it’s going. Why can’t I just start this process so it doesn’t take so long?” – Dem, spouse.

C. Correctional visits

Family members face a new set of challenges and limitations each time they visit their loved ones in detention, as the visitation policies and procedures vary between institutions. As they strive to maintain relationships with their incarcerated loved ones, relatives face several geographic, personal, administrative, and institutional obstacles.

First, several research participants mentioned the distance from the facility and having to drive several hours to get to the institution where their loved one is located. 

But they were arranging for a visit. For us to go to [the institution] to visit him and we were, like, not, you know, the wealthiest either, right? […] Um, so once a month, essentially, I would do that long trip up to visit him. […) So, it was, like, eight hours. – Nathan, son.

Those who can make these long trips must then also find a place to stay in or near the town where the institution is located, which requires additional planning and expenses. In some cases, visits are not possible simply due to the distance between the family member’s home and the institution. Distance often impedes frequent visits or makes them impossible.

In addition to the distance-related challenges, institutional visitation regulations are difficult for family members to navigate and manage. These procedures vary between provincial and federal institutions, between the institutions themselves, but also according to the stage of the judicial process (charged versus sentenced). Relatives must learn how to use the visitation reservation system (if one exists), the established visiting days and times, the institution’s entrance protocols, the search and security procedures, as well as the types of visits permitted (closed or open).

Moreover, visiting hours within a single institution may vary depending on the individual’s confinement sector. Participant testimonies reveal that detention centres do not notify family members in advance if their incarcerated relative is transferred to another wing of the institution or when a confinement situation prevents visitations (i.e., lockdowns and/or segregation). 

And my son, when he first got there, he moved from Maximum Security to General Population to Protective Custody to Maximum and I didn’t know each set – Like, how would I know any of this? I didn’t know that each section has its own days and times for visits. […] “Sorry, that’s not a visiting time anymore. No visit.” Well, how are we supposed to know there’s a different visiting time if he moves. The visit was booked so why is someone not contacting us? And then they said, “Well, we don’t have your contact information.” Like, I’m sure you do. […] I said, “I want to make sure you have my contact information so this doesn’t happen again.” And they go, “Oh, is your phone number blah-blah-blah-blah?” “Yes, that’s it.”  – Gina, mother.

            More specifically, participants expressed frustration regarding the various existing visit reservation systems. When participants call to schedule a visit, they are often placed on hold for long periods of time and must restart the call process each time the line cuts out. Participants sometimes feel that their efforts are in vain, as when they manage to get through to someone, they are informed that the visitation slots have been filled and they will have to call back the following week to reserve a spot. 

You have to book in advance, a week in advance… No, 24 hours in advance minimum and then maximum one week in advance… Then, to call, it’s a whole process… I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere, but they don’t put you on hold. Uh, they hang up if it’s busy. Yesterday, I called, I called 268 times before I got the line…I have it on my phone, like, the number of times you call, because it hangs up. Then you have to call on and off like that, until it answers. So someone who works can’t call to see his spouse or his son, it’s impossible. Then, there, it’s someone who answers you, who puts you on hold. Then, there, you have, are on hold, but without music. So you don’t know if it’s still, you know, online. Yesterday, I waited, like, 25 minutes. Well, that’s the longest I’ve ever had to wait. And then, a lot of times, it’s to make you say that… there’s no more room because he’s in the work stuff. They do that two nights a week. – Patricia, spouse.

Then there were the reservations for visits where you had to call… there were 2 days where you could call between such and such a time. Often, the line was busy, sometimes when the line was not busy, we were told that it was full.  – Maude, spouse.

Participants’ accounts reveal that email booking systems are still very rare. When a booking system does not exist, visits are sometimes allocated on a first come-first serve basis,  which creates a lot of uncertainty around whether a family member will be able to see their incarcerated loved one. In addition, the institution limits the number of weekly visits allowed and the number of people who can attend said visits. 

Even participants’ confirmed visits have been limited or cancelled because the detained persons were not notified of the visits and/or participants were not informed that the institution was in lockdown. Various factors may affect the contact time between detainees and their relatives; for example, the length of time it takes for relatives to enter the jail or prison due to the numerous security protocols or correctional officer staffing shortages. When visiting time is lost due to factors beyond participants’ control, the institutions do not allow additional time, even when relatives have travelled great distances and/or rearranged their schedules to be there.

N: So we get there, this was my first time going to F*Federal. I got there, I say to myself at the same time, I’m going to see my son. Her, she was no longer able to anymore, she did not have the right key to open the locker and put our stuff. It took 40 minutes. They had to bring someone in and anyways. During that time, I couldn’t get in.  C: So, visitation time is also decreasing. – Normand & Claudette, parents. 

The worst ones are the old ones who go in and have 10,000 pieces of jewelry, 10,000 watches, 10,000 money changers in their pockets and don’t understand that you have to take them out. So, you know, it takes like 15 minutes. But that’s 15 minutes they’re taking away from your visit.  – Patricia, spouse.

Participating family members explained that during each visit, they had to comply with various control measures that the institution deemed necessary for “security reasons.” Participants have been subjected to searches, have had to fill out various paperwork, and pass through metal detectors as well as ion scanners for any traces of drugs on their persons[8].  The use of drug-detector dogs is also common in some institutions. 

The little ones are a little afraid of dogs and you know, they’re not, they’re not little dogs, they’re not little poodles. They’re like Labradors, German Shepherds, massive ones […] We have a little circle and we get on top of it. Let’s say, I’m here and the other one is there. There is a distance between the two so that the dog can pass. They turn around us with the dog. And we told them, if you’re afraid, you can close your eyes, but the dog is nice. And that’s what he did. For example, the people, the gentleman, the dog handler, he’s dealing with children, so he’s careful. He’s careful. And he was talking to the girls, he was telling them, he’s not dangerous, he’s just going to smell you. That’s the same thing. That’s the same thing. – Claudette, mother. 

The dog for a community party sat in front of my son but never in front of me. I had to choose between my son and my spouse. Seeing that my son was panicking a bit, I called my parents to come and get him and I did the strip search. – Maude, spouse.

Several participants have had to sign consent forms to undergo potential strip searches to be granted access to the institution for visits. Two of the participants interviewed were obligated to submit to strip searches to maintain their visitation privileges. Additionally, some institutions show visitors videos highlighting the consequences of having drugs or traces of drugs on their persons or belongings when entering the prison or jail. Participants have found this added security strategy difficult to deal with and even frightening in some instances. 

Participants have also expressed frustration regarding the lack of consistency during their visits in terms of the items they are permitted to bring or prohibited from bringing into the institution. For example, mothers who bring their children into the institution are permitted to bring a snack or bottle for their child during a given visit, but are then reprimanded and sometimes prohibited from visiting for attempting to bring these items into the institution the following week. 

Once, like, I brought pictures, but I had like too many. Then, you know, I was like showing my friends, my things… my people, because, you know, we just moved to a new town. So, you know, I was showing my house, my stuff, you know, to my dad. And then, uh, the moment she said, like, “Ah, well, there, you know, there’s too much, na-na-na,” she saw in my face the kind of like… And then I started to get, uh, like emotional. And then, like, I didn’t want to, like, cry or anything because I was like, “Hey, who cares, it’s just pictures, whatever.” It doesn’t matter. But it was so important to me, like, because it was like my life that I was bringing, like, to my dad.  – Olivia, daughter.

[…] it’s like I was being searched, but there was a tall blonde who came home with a Tim Hortons coffee in the visiting room and brought it to her husband with a lot of stuff. It was no big deal. But the woman next to me who was there with her newborn baby had to leave the bottles at the control… But she, the tall blonde, she was allowed to… (laughs). I saw these kinds of injustices there […].  – Maude, spouse.


In 2004, the ion scanner (Ion Mobility Spectrometer) was installed in all federal institutions as a result of the “War on Drugs.” Aimed at facilitating “discreet searches of inmates, employees and visitors” to detect illicit substances within the detention facility, the ion scanner allows correctional officers to take samples from the individual’s belongings upon entry (i.e. wallet, keys, clothing, outerwear, etc.). If an individual receives a positive result from the ion scanner, a second test is then conducted on a different item than the first. An interview with the manager or supervisor on duty follows this second test should it yield another positive result. During this interview, the individual in question is invited to explain the reasons for which traces of illicit substances were found on their person and/or belongings. Interviews for this study as well as other research[9], indicate that the relatives of incarcerated people often do not know the reasons for which these traces have appeared on their person or possessions. After the interview has been completed, visitors are then subject to a Threat Risk Assessment, which along with the two initial ion scanner tests and their interview will determine whether this individual will be permitted to have a contact or no-contact visit, or if they will be denied entry to the institution (Commissioner’s Directive no: 566-8).

Family members in this study experienced significant stress during their interactions with the ion scanners, as they recognized that a positive test could result in denied visits and impact their incarcerated relatives’ files. 

They make you feel like you can’t be trusted. I’m 58 years old. I’ve never broken the law in my life but every time I go in there, I go past that ION Scanner and I’m terrified, terrified […] if you go through the ION scanner and you test positive, then they change your visit because of it. It goes on Jacob’s record and will impact his parole and his ability for Early Release. – Inès, mother.

This section will later explore some of the strategies that relatives have developed to cope with the stress of the ion scanner. For instance, some relatives develop specific routines before their visits to avoid any possibility of contact with and/or contamination from illicit substances. 

Many institutions implement dress codes for visitors, mandating that individuals entering the institutions must wear clothing that the correctional staff have deemed “appropriate.” Some participants were almost denied access to the institution while others were asked to return to their vehicles or residences to change their clothing. Participants have accepted these controlling measures for fear that they would otherwise lose access to their incarcerated loved ones.

One time I didn’t have the right sweater. One time I had a camisole with a jacket, I thought it was nice. I thought I was clean, but it didn’t pass.  – Maryse, mother.

In addition to the institutions’ admission security measures, participants report that the actual infrastructure of the institution itself is intimidating; however, some relatives appear to be familiarizing themselves with it. Certain family members in this study describe the places that they are “allowed” to see during their visits to the institutions in detail.

When I first came to [the prison] to visit my son, when I saw the building, because you don’t walk around there every day. I had never seen a prison environment, never in my life. […] I was very impressed. This is really very personal. For me, the big door of the prison made me think and go back very far in my past and the Berlin Wall. So I was kind of traumatized, I had this image and it still happens sometimes. I had a lot of nightmares after being in [the prison]. … I felt like a prisoner. […] I was shaking, I was cold. Finally, we go to the waiting room, there are not enough chairs for everyone to sit down either. And there we wait for someone to come and get us or call us. On television, there is something written. So now, we all move around. Before, we have like a cordon there, identified that the office of the visitors gives us then, therefore we are like sheep, you follow the person, you do not know where you go. There is nothing, no information, we move on. We have to move forward, we move forward. There is another door, another place, another control. Show your identification, we pass, we cross the garden there, the yard. There too, there is another door, another control and then you enter a kind of corridor and there, there is the last control before going to the visiting room, So that’s a lot of controls and you leave your bag at the reception desk there, locked. – Rosalyne, mother.

I remember going and pulling up to X Institution on this huge property and there was, just, this long road that drives into there and, uh, you know, there’s, there’s something gothic about driving onto that property that stuck with me. And, uh, when we got there, you know, you go through these gates and you get, you know, processed at the front and, like, it’s very, um, sterile and very security-oriented and, uh, very […] um, what are the words to describe it? Um, there’s no feeling to it, right? You’re just, like, a piece of machinery going through this system. You know, for a child, that’s a very scary place to be, right? So, I got in. We made it through the Security thing and at that time, the way the visits worked, when you were in evaluation, there’s no open visits. So, the visit that I got to have with my father for the first time was behind Plexiglass. And there was a phone […] I don’t know what I thought about the system but I know, you know, if I think about what I felt, looking back, you know, um, I, I hated it. I really hated that symbol of authority that had taken my father from me.  – Nathan, son.

Visitors are permitted access to the visiting room(s) after they have passed the various security and administrative evaluations. Physical contact between visitors and their incarcerated loved ones is strictly prohibited in provincial jails and during the evaluation period at the beginning of a loved one’s sentence. These types of visits take place in visiting rooms or ticket offices in which glass separates the visitor and their incarcerated loved one and they may only communicate using a telephone handset. Participants in this study describe the issues they have encountered with faulty handsets, inappropriate places to bring children when visiting, as well as intrusive background noise and lack of privacy due to the close proximity of visiting rooms.

The visits also, he does not have the right to have a contact visit, in a certain department. There is a glass window, we are obliged to have a glass window between us, it is terrible. And there, you shout, you hear the others shouting next door. It was crazy and they are regulars. Often they choose the best spot. I hate that, the no contact, it’s terrible. And then you can take him in your arms right at the end. – Maryse, mother.

Really what you want to do is you want to hug your loved one, right? You really do want to hug them and no, it’s over the telephone and with glass between you. So, it’s very, very hard. Very hard. Very inhumane. I, I don’t have anything good to say about it, actually.   – Erika, mother.

When we go to see her, she’s happy. She taps on the glass and then she sticks her cheek and then she flatters him and then she… you know. That’s a tough one. The other time she was trying to hug him through the glass, you know. It was like… that was rough right there. – Patricia, spouse.

Because, through a window, that’s it, at X I’ve been there a few times, but it’s always through a window. That’s something there, the first times, you get into the emotions. They are like in a little jar, I would say there… – Georgette, mother.

There is a window, we are obliged to have a window between us, it is terrible. And there, you shout, you hear the others shouting next door. It was crazy and they are regulars. Often they choose the best spot. I hate that, the no contact, it’s terrible. And then you get to hug it right at the end. There are all kinds of details to respect that I didn’t know, but once you know them… you enjoy your visit. – Maryse, mother.

In general, participants indicated that they appreciated the physical closeness with their incarcerated relatives that authorized contact visits allowed them. In those moments, they were finally able to touch their loved ones and establish a degree of proximity, even though certain intimate forms of contact such as kissing and whispering in the ear remained prohibited. 

In the end, I didn’t even enjoy my visits. I was always on the lookout to see what was going on because I was always afraid that something would happen. As soon as we touched hands, as soon as we were too close to talk, if we talked in our ears or whatever, you heard “security control”.  – Maude, spouse.

            While participants described the prisons as cold, sterile places, they acknowledged that the visiting rooms are better equipped and more conducive to receiving children, as most of these rooms are outfitted with play areas. Regardless, participants felt that they could not speak freely because they knew that they would be overheard by correctional staff, other visitors or even an institutional recording device. 

         Private family visits [10] (PFV) – commonly referred to as “trailers” – are rare, according to participants. These visits depend upon the incarcerated person’s behaviour, the institution’s policy on visit frequency, and the availability of the physical trailers to host the visits. Depending on the institution, the visits can take place every few weeks to every few months. 

The trailers are still nice. (Laughter.) But, uh, it doesn’t always happen quickly. Like at [such and such a penitentiary], there were a lot of requests and then there are just three units. So, if it’s a weekend and then the turnaround isn’t quick, there … in the regulations or whatever, there, it’s marked about every six weeks, but, uh, you know, it’s often … it was often two months of waiting and, uh … it also depends on each security, each level of security.  – Ariane, spouse. 

Participants have mixed opinions regarding the visits, but some do find them enjoyable as these visits ultimately allow for quality time with their incarcerated loved ones.

You know, it’s not just hell, I have a lot of fun there, sometimes with my husband, on weekends, I’m not able to climb the stairs there because I’m laughing so hard. And we have had moments as I told you at the first PFV, where we are there (breathing), what are we doing. Then there are other PFV’s I got out of there and I was bawling because I didn’t want to leave, because I found it hard to leave, and I don’t want to leave him there, and I want to take him home. And there are other times, can you put a little chair on the edge of the door for me, I can’t wait to go. Not that I can’t wait to leave, but I just can’t wait to get the hell out of here because I want to get back to civilization. – Mary, mother.

Many relatives have described feelings of ambivalence regarding private family visits due to the accompanying limitations. While residing at the detention facility throughout these visits, relatives must comply with the institution’s conditions and security protocols as if they were prisoners themselves. 

At the end, at [a penitentiary], I would arrive with my bags, a little list practically made on the corner of the table. And they would look at… it depended on who came home at the end of the week, but sometimes they would barely look at what I had and then say, “That’s nice.” Because they also came to know the guys, if they were all-hooked or not all-hooked or… Then, you know, the family, that comes with it too. We still see each other regularly. But, in the beginning, at X, I used to bring my things in, but in my sports bag I used to put my things in, ….. Everything was listed. Obviously, I have three pairs of socks, I have two pairs of socks, I have a make-up pencil, I have diapers for the little one… it was my boyfriend who had to buy the diapers on the grocery list. I couldn’t buy any, bring any. So, uh, that’s it. That’s why I had to take my stock out one by one. That’s right. This is… He would check off his list. Then the bag, my bag, it stayed in the locker. They didn’t even put the, the bags in there, or the suitcases or whatever, there. Then, uh, that made it so. That too, that, again, it depends on the level of security…. family visits, well, it’s still…   – Ariane, spouse. 

When I go to visits, when I go to conjugal visits…I take a lot of pills…4 times a day. But when I go to the penitentiary, I often just take them in the morning and I let go of the rest of my medication, because otherwise, I have to leave, I have to get dressed, I have to walk to the pills, there, they’re there, they’re leaning, they’re waiting for me to finish taking my pills. If I’m lucky, they don’t look in my mouth, you know, to know, to make sure I’ve swallowed them. And then I put them in the little box and come back. Although I have some narcotics, but I never put them in, pain medication and all that. But I never put them in. …You know, you have to take them outside. So, I know a lot of mothers, people who decide not to take their medication, putting their health at risk for three days because it’s less trouble than if they come to get you at 7:30 am, then you have to get dressed. […] Also, they search you.  – Mary, spouse.

In addition to the extensive searches of their person and belongings, participants reported having to consent to “counting [11].” This means they must obtain special permission to access any necessary medication and they are not permitted to move freely within the institution. While the visit provides a rare opportunity for freedom, autonomy and happiness for the imprisoned individual, their relatives must subject themselves to voluntary confinement and deprivation, and take on numerous financial costs. 

You know, at the beginning, the first ones are a bit more difficult. The departure after three days, well, it becomes a little sad, but otherwise, you get used to it. It’s like a little routine that’s still there, that’s done…… It’s true that, sometimes, it’s long. Because, listen, in winter, you’re in a little three and a half or a little four and a half and then, uh, what do we do? We had board games, it wasn’t so bad, stuff like that, but it’s, it’s a life that’s not quite a life either, there. You know, when you’re in your house, you have a lot of things to do in your day. But here, it’s limited to this food, to these games. You know, there’s no… there’s no more you can do in your day. – Ariane, spouse.

Oh my god, it was really to please him because I hated it, it’s dirty, it’s disgusting, it’s… and you’re locked in uh…. I mean, you’re locked up there… just to take, you know, I take Lactaid, because I’m lactose intolerant, I couldn’t even have that on me. Fuck, I had to call and have the guard come and get me. Or like, you want to take Advils because you have a headache, I have to call the janitor, he has to come and get me, he has to take me to my locker like at the reception, I have to take it in front of him and come back. You know, I found it there… And inside, it’s dirty. They do the maintenance in there, and it’s disgusting, and it’s dirty, and… You know, you cook in everybody’s dishes and, you know…. I’m not Mrs. Blancheville, but I was a little disgusted, because it was really to please him. And I mean, you can’t do anything… all we did… we played cards, we watched movies and I made him food. His fun was making his grocery list. You know, he can pick out special things that he doesn’t eat often. He doesn’t have the same list, but he still has more choices. But he has to pay for that grocery store too, you know. I’m the one who pays for that…for the trailers, the family pays for the groceries. He chooses what he wants, the order is placed in a grocery store and the day you arrive, your order arrives at the same time as you. But it is the parent, the family or the girlfriend who pays. – Alexandra, mother.

You have to be there by noon on Friday and then you’re let out at about 10 on Monday. And seven times I went down with my granddaughter and we spent the weekend […], for him it was freedom because he could go and we stayed in this little bungalow type place with a fence. But there was a yard with some grass and you know, we could cook and he would plan all the food. They’d buy the food. He puts a list. So, he puts a list. So, he would make the menu and he’s a good cook. So, his job was to plan the menu and it gives him something to do. Because when they’re in jail, they don’t make any decisions, right? So, this was one thing that he could plan the weekend for the food and everything. And, but, for me going it, I can’t take my camera. I love to take pictures. I can’t take my phone. I don’t have my computer. I can’t phone anybody. So, you’re completely cut off. So, you know, my daughter is completely cut off with her baby and I’m completely cut off with everybody. Like, I’m a free person. I can talk to whoever I want when I want to talk to them. […] The first time I went it took me two weeks to get over it, I think […] I couldn’t believe it. And for him, it was so good. He was, “When can we do the next one?” And I’m thinking, “I don’t ever want to do that again.” – Kim, mother.

Participants described the sadness they experienced due to their inability to see their incarcerated loved ones and their feelings of powerlessness due to the institution’s control over their relationships and daily lives. Visits, whether separated by glass or facilitated in common rooms or private trailers, are precious but difficult moments for family members. Participants’ testimonies illustrate the various challenges they face each time they enter a detention facility. The demanding and sometimes inconsistent institutional visiting policies and practices challenge family members’ coping capacities. 

[…] the jail here [1st prison] is the worst for – You’re just treated like, you know, like a nothing. So, you’re shuffled […] And you go and, for me, with, when you have the phones and stuff it’s, like, it’s, like, if you’re all sitting in a swimming pool. You know how loud it is inside a public swimming pool? So, I have a hard time hearing and the phones don’t always work that great kind of thing. And you’re – You know, they may have fifteen different phones and there might be, you know, five people in visiting and they put them so you’ve got somebody right beside you talking, instead of spacing them out. So, I hate visiting in provincial jails and I don’t, most of the time. At [2d prison] it’s a little different. You go and you stand outside. First come/first serve as they have one place to visit, cubicle, and you stand out. There’s no seat. There’s no roof. … I don’t like visiting provincial jails. And in [federal pen], I only went a couple of times, for, like, a day visit, you know, a three hours visit because to drive three hours to visit for three hours to drive three hours home was – And he never wanted me to go on the weekend. It’s busier on the weekend. He doesn’t like being around a lot of people, which makes jail really difficult for him. […] You know, the thought of being in a room with a whole lot of people visiting, kids running around […]. We went to Social one time and actually my daughter came and her daughter and myself […] and my son said, “Don’t look at anybody.” And other moms have said that. So, when you go and you visit and so, you’re all sitting in the gym at tables to have this Social and there’s food and to eat together and stuff. “Don’t look at anybody, because that can cause problems.” Say, you know, I’m looking at a woman there or somebody’s girlfriend, I might be judging her and then that guy’s going to come and beat up my son later, right? And it’s, it’s – And, so, it’s like that and the same with visits. Like when you go on a weekend to visit. So, when you go and it’s the weekend visit or the 72-hour visit, I don’t have to deal with any of that. – Kim, mother.

2.  Family members’ interactions with correctional staff

In addition to the institution’s regulations and procedures, relatives often view their interactions with correctional staff as problematic. Conversely, participants in this study have also emphasized their positive interactions with correctional personnel. 

[…] they’ve always been very good to us, you know. We could have gotten some, some people, you know, some, some agents there that, no, you know, like, no airs and graces there, like, well, well strict then.  – Olivia, daughter.

Well, I think that, like them, it’s their job […] it’s like any business, there are kind people, there are kindless people. Of course, when you arrive at X, the person has a certain air of seriousness because of the nature of the institution. But there have been times when we’ve made jokes. We have very funny people, who, uh, who made jokes with the kids or whatever […] going there once, I probably wouldn’t have the smiles I had going there every week. So it’s kind of a relationship that you develop with people as you go along. […] I think they are also able to distinguish between my work with the inmates and my work with the family. […] most of the guards were, there, quite correct, there…. there were some faces, sometimes, that you say: “Ah, him, in the morning, he did not want to be there, you know. But sometimes, I say to myself, it’s like everywhere. You go, you go to the cash register, to the grocery store and then, maybe, sometimes, the lady, she’s not tempted to answer you either, there.” It’s just the nature of the institution that there’s a seriousness that hangs over it a little more, maybe, than at the grocery store. (Laughter.) – Ariane, spouse.

On some occasions, participants reported positive interactions with certain correctional personnel.

And you have agents like I had where he was, the agents he had when he was at [a penitentiary], they were all people I could call and talk to. When he had his bypass and he had a nasty breakdown, I was able to call his case management team. I was able to call Martin* and say Martin*, I’m concerned about his mental health.  – Mary, spouse.

(comparing with other institutions) So, they were so nice, you know? And, they said, “Oh, we understand. This must be so hard.” They were women guards. They were very understanding. You know, so, that helped a lot. That helped a lot. That they were not mean to me because, you know, you hear about families that aren’t treated well. And, that made it easier, for sure. And, she said – I can’t remember how she, like, exactly she said but it was something a little bit encouraging, you know? […] this one guard in X, she just stood out because she had this huge smile. Like, she was so nice. “Oh, yes? You came from out of town!’ It is like, you felt good. I was so shocked at the way they treated me.  – Tara, mother.

Apart from these rare and surprising positive interactions, the majority of participants’ encounters with correctional staff were deemed unpleasant, degrading and even harmful in some cases. 

But you feel so unregarded as, as an individual, I think, right now. It’s as if, let’s say, they don’t care about you. You know, for them, the inmate’s family and then the inmate and then his life in general, it’s nothing. For them, it’s just a number that did something. He has a file and that’s it […] Because I had absolutely nothing against prison officers before. I thought it was a very commendable job. But, now, there… (Laughs.) […] Some are really good at it. Then, like, the decent ones, ….it’s, it’s how exactly they approach you when you go… in a store then they were doing customer service. The other ones, they talk to you like you’re the last, uh… you know, it’s not… Anyway. I was really surprised that they had so little consideration for the people who go there… I would have thought that they would have more discernment about that… Then to, to have more, understanding towards the family. You know, to take them more into consideration, not to act as if you were just a number and you… I go to see my boyfriend in prison, but it’s like going to see my grandmother at the seniors’ center, you know. For them, … in their approach, they don’t take into consideration that they’re talking to people who are, who are hurt and who perhaps need tact … they don’t consider that this is an ordeal that you’re going through. –  Patricia, spouse. 

Too often, interactions between family members and correctional staff are described as bad experiences. The passive and negative attitudes of correctional staff exacerbate participants’ existing experiences of feeling ignored, invisible and consciously uninformed by the institution. Correctional officers’ non-verbal cues as well as their words – spoken or unspoken – make family members feel mistreated on an interpersonal level. 

I would say, for the most part, it was either total disinterest. You could be just a fly on the wall, you know? Or they could be downright insulting and rude to you. And that happened on several occasions. – Erika, mother.

I’m lucky, it never happened to me, but there was a guard at the [penitentiary]. The lady arrived, an older lady, she came to see her husband. It had been in the newspaper – he had abused many children. The lady comes to visit him, she looks down. She doesn’t want to be there, but it’s her husband and she decided to stay with him. You see that she shakes, it is her first conjugal visit, she shakes, my heart bleeds, … then they search here and there, instead of being nice and being polite with her. There, they start, well your underwear, she takes out her two small pairs of panties, “show them”, there he makes her show her panties too. And there, your bra, and there she takes out the bra… and there he continues, but at that time at the B*, we did that in the entrance. There, you have all the guards that come in and out during the day, it’s a shift change at that time. All the employees…, at that time, they were building the hospital, all the construction guys and you are there showing your underwear.   – Mary, spouse. 

Participant accounts frequently reveal that they feel as though correctional staff treat them like criminals. 

When we go there, we feel like thugs. – Normand, father.

You feel like you’re being treated like you are a criminal as well. They look at you with scowls… the majority of them are absolutely rude.  – Gina, mother. 

The system makes me feel like a criminal. When you go in, they treat you like shit. They make you feel like you can’t be trusted. I’m 58 years old. I’ve never broken the law in my life but every time I go in there … I’m terrified, terrified. – Inès, mother. 

So sometimes I go to visits and sometimes I have to remind the guard that I am a Canadian citizen… But how many times I see them denigrate either the families or someone. It’s like they forget that we are citizens. – Mary, spouse.

Well, I think that the people who receive us should be more sympathetic. In the sense that when I say friendly, not listening, first of all we don’t tell our lives when we go there, we don’t have time and all that. But, just to understand that we are going to meet someone …. in the sense that, I am not a delinquent, understand, I don’t have a criminal record, … I think that if we were received a little more pleasantly, I think that it would have an impact for us with our prisoners. I arrived at the small window, I am already at the end there. I arrived there and I was angry. My son knows me, he said calm down. I said hey, we’re being treated like idiots here. You see, I found that hard and I must admit that yes, it made me sad because I said to myself, look, I come to visit my son to make his life a little sweeter for the rest of the week and I see him, I am angry. You know, in the sense that…! …I Fuck, you’d think that the staff should be a little more gentle, that they should soften up. But I understand that they too must be tired, fed up, it’s their job. We understand that they are not giving of themselves, but yes, to be a little more welcoming, I think so. – Zora, mother.

This treatment intimidates and sometimes deters relatives from visiting their incarcerated loved ones. Hannah, an aunt whose nephew is incarcerated, reports feeling apprehensive about visiting her nephew having been privy to the treatment her sister experienced as a visitor.

G (sister of the interviewee) said that she felt really humiliated. She said that they do treat you like you’re guilty too. So, I haven’t gone yet. They can think about what they want. I can’t control what they think. I’m a good person. I want to visit my nephew. It’s an important part of his rehabilitation to know that there are people on the outside that care about him. I will just do the best I can. I will treat them like people. Hopefully they’ll treat me like one.  – Hannah, aunt.

While this research does not allow us to analyze the role of stigma in correctional staff’s treatment of inmates’ family members, it is clear that correctional officers’ attitudes perpetuate the stigmatization of relatives (Comfort, 2003; Hannem, 2011; McCuaig, 2007; MacKenzie, 2019). Mary, who worked in the corrections field and became the spouse of an incarcerated man, illustrates the differential treatment of relatives: 

I expected to get there and have the same service as when you go there like today you show up in jail, a lawyer shows up, I expect to still have the service… no, no, I found out overnight. I went from being a super respected person in corrections with an A security clearance. […] I never had a drug detector, I never had the tracking dog, never, never. […] And from one day to the next, I came back as a spouse and I became like … I say all the time, like a second class citizen in my own country, a second class citizen and that was like the most striking. Well I told the guard, well I don’t understand! I go into a supermax in Quebec, and there is no problem and then today, he tests me for drugs […] I didn’t understand how you leave one day, on Friday you are a respected person in the correctional service and a month later, you go to visit this guy and you are suddenly a drug courier. Fuck, I think that’s the hardest part since I’ve been with him. […] I say all the time, I chose this life. I chose to marry him. The mom and dad, the sister, the brother, the kids didn’t choose and it’s that part that’s so hard in corrections. And whether it’s federal or provincial, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t change.  – Mary, spouse. 

Participants’ interactions with staff engender emotions of frustration, humiliation and shame. These experiences compound over time and become a significant source of stress and suffering for family members. Correctional policies and practices thus reproduce and extend the pains of imprisonment to prisoners’ family members. Participants’ accounts allow us to explore the correctional system’s various limitations and deficits, as participants identify them. 

3.    The correctional system’s deficiencies

The experiences of family members point to functional deficiencies in the skills that staff should have in their work (hard and soft skills), but also to emotional and moral deficiencies of the prison institution, its policies and its employees.

Operational Deficiencies
Institutional functionality
Value-based Deficiencies
Institutional Values
Lack of resourcesLack of intimacy
Lack of reliabilityLack of respect
Lack of organizationLack of humanity
Lack of professionalismDiscrimination
Lack of efficiencyLack of justice
Rigidity and lack of flexibilityLack of security (by excessive treatment or disregard for the sense of security of prisoners and families)
Lack of consistencyLack of compassion
Lack of coherence 
Lack of transparency 
Lack of information 
Lack of communication 
Lack of accountability  

A. Operational deficiencies: Failures in institutional functionality 

Participants described numerous ways in which they perceived the institution’s operational failures. As family members, they have received a resounding lack of material and human resources from federal penitentiaries, but especially from provincial jails. In addition to lack of physical space, the institutions’ infrastructures and equipment and infrastructures are often dilapidated, specifically the limited visitation rooms and faulty telephones. Participants have also reported a lack of correctional staff, which has a direct impact on the level of information (i.e., the absence of a point of contact within the institution and lack of communication with family members) and service (i.e., limited or cancelled visits) they receive. 

Family members in this study have found the institutional procedures confusing, inconsistent, and often poorly explained to them. Many participants’ experiences oppose the correctional system’s stated objective for inmates to maintain positive familial and social ties while incarcerated. Further, participants have observed a lack of logic and consistency in the application of protocols and procedures, which vary between institutions and often within a given facility. The explicit and/or implicit permissions that staff grant during any given week are often revoked the following week, as if they had never occurred.  

Then she says to me… she says, “No, snacks are not allowed.” I go, “Let’s see, I’ve been coming twice a week for two months, I have a snack all the time, there.” “No, that, we don’t want snacks. It makes a mess.” – Patricia, spouse.

The only consistency over there, is inconsistency. – Mary, spouse.

And, really, that’s why I say there’s no consistency between the services and the people who are running all this big machine. – Rosalyne, mother.

Participants’ accounts reveal the ways in which relatives struggle with the prohibitive rules that correctional institutions implement sporadically, and the institutions’ tendency to explain these inconsistencies as misunderstandings, errors or lies. Participants describe institutional practices as ridiculous and illogical, as they remain generally uninformed of the institution’s procedures and the justifications for those that appear to be implemented at random. Why must children wait until they return home to mail the drawings they made during their institutional visits to their incarcerated parent or relative? Why are such drawings only accepted if they are made using specific coloured pencils, but prohibited if markers are used? Why is the reception of a “prohibited drawing” grounds for a negative entry in the incarcerated person’s file? 

Family members’ experiences illustrate confusing and frustrating interactions with an institution they perceive to be rigid, unreliable, unorganized, and unprofessional. The lack of communication, explanations, and recourse options for family members contribute to relatives’ negative perceptions of the correctional system as lacking transparency and accountability. 

B. Value-based deficiencies: Flawed institutional principles 

I know it’s not a daycare. I know it’s not supposed to be pleasant, but surely it should be humane. – Erika, mother.

Participants’ experiences highlight the correctional system’s general lack of interpersonal skills and consistent values. Confronted with a state institution that appears both illogical in its policies and disrespectful in its practices, relatives’ testimonies illustrate the correctional system’s failure to apply and personify democratic values. 

Provincial jails and federal penitentiaries do not appear to convey the positive values expected of state institutions and public services. Participants who were unfamiliar with the correctional system were shocked and overwhelmed by the significant gap between the system they believed to embody Canadian social values and the reality they encountered. 

Well, it was a shock! It’s a shock to think that this is what our jails are like. This, and this was here in Ottawa, right? So, here we are in the Capital City of Canada. One of the best nations in the world to live in and this is how we treat people who haven’t even been found guilty of anything yet, right? …It was a shock. It was a shock to my system. I have to tell you,  it really rocked me. It rocked my world.  – Erika, mother.

In family members’ eyes, the carceral institution’s procedures and protocols show an obvious lack of respect for relatives and the challenges they face as family members of incarcerated individuals. In submitting to institutional rules, surveillance and, to some extent, confinement, relatives experience the deprivation of autonomy, independence, intimacy and privacy in ways similar to prisoners’ experiences [12]. Movement restrictions and the removal of visitors’ personal items and clothing illustrate correctional staff control over relatives’ bodies.

You know, I was wearing a headscarf. It’s pretty obvious to me, you know, when someone’s going through cancer treatment, there’s a certain fact of headwear. And one time I went for a visit and, you know, I’ve read the thing. “No hats and jackets.” There’s a sign about that. But, to me, you know, I’m not wearing headgear to be stylish. It’s because, you know, I’ve lost my hair… But then one time I, I went to visit, they asked me to remove it. And the person before me had a hijab in, so problem… But, you know, to me if there’s a religious exception, to me, cancer would be put in that, to me. It’s an out of respect thing. And I said to the Guard, “You know, I’m going through cancer treatment right now.” And he’s, like, “Oh, there’s no headwear. You’ll have to ask my partner.” So, he goes for me to go through the metal detector and his partner in there doesn’t say anything. And the other guard, “Are you going to let her wear that?” Like, and just like that whole tone. And, he’s, like, “Yeah, I’m fine with it.” So, they let me in.  – Gina, mother.

Mirroring the treatment of prisoners, correctional guards escort and secure relatives into various rooms, regulating their movements, determining when and where they should wait in line and the wait times for entering the institution itself. 

And so, we’d go through and then you go through the metal detector and then you have to be sniffed by the dogs and then you go through here and then you have to sit and wait. So, for a little kid, it was – The first two times I took her, she cried. She was scared. “Who are these people? Why are they touching me? Why are they –“ You know – “Why do I have to go through this intimidating-looking thing?” One time I took her, she had to go to the bathroom and she was, she was potty-trained and I asked them, like, it’s quite a process. I said, “She has to go to the bathroom. I know there’s, on the other side of that door, can she go to the bathroom?” “No.” She ended up – She was about three then, wetting her pants.  – Kim, mother.

Family members are subject to various surveillance and risk management procedures, which prioritize security logic to the detriment of visitors’ dignity and privacy. Such procedures include searches, mail screening, phone call monitoring and recording, handling of clothing, and interrogations. Family members feel as though they are forced to pay for maintaining their relationships with their detained relatives due to the correctional system’s perception and treatment of family members as risk factors and potential smugglers [13]. The price to maintain these relationships is high, as participants describe the procedures to which they “voluntarily” submit and which violate their autonomy, integrity, independence, intimacy, and privacy. Olivia, Maude and Alexandra illustrate this resignation to accept any treatment for the sole purpose of seeing a loved one, even a request for a strip search. This treatment is thus experienced as a form of violence.

The strip search, you know, she explained to us… Now she says, “You get there, sometimes, you know, we’re all inside, they’re going to search the, the visitors.” Then she says, “If they tell you, ‘It’s a strip search. You say ‘no’ […] You don’t want to.” And I was like, “Yeah, but I can’t go see Dad […].” But she says, “No, but don’t get searched, like, naked.” She says, “You don’t want to go through that.” Well, I was like, “Yeah, but to go see dad, I don’t mind.” – Olivia, daughter.

[…] I’ve never been strip-searched because I would never have gone back in my life. But I know that I signed the paper as if it could happen. – Alexandra, mother.

(talking about the naked strip search) Well yeah, it wasn’t forced, but like forced. […] or else I had to go to the visiting room for an hour. (silence). But then you see your husband, your partner panic, and you know, so many things were happening that it’s like, “I have no choice.” It’s really like “I have no choice.” Inside, it’s like “I don’t have a choice, I have to do it, maybe they’ll let me go afterwards because…” (silence). And it was… two officers and there was the one who wouldn’t let me go… who controlled everything, everything, everything, everything. The worst thing was that on the phone I always told Olivier* “If one day it happens, I’m leaving.” But… I had no choice…  – Maude, spouse.

It’s violent, it’s like being treated as if I were a criminal myself, as if I was the one who made my son like that, as if it was because of me. – Maryse, mother.

Some participants have gone so far as to assert that the institution’s visitation protocols and related security measures are dehumanizing processes. The institution’s flawed values accumulate and appear to result in the institution’s refusal to acknowledge relatives’ dignity. Participants thus perceive the institution’s lack of respect, humanity and compassion, as well as the practices which deprive relatives of their autonomy and privacy, to be purposeful and structural in nature.

[…] one guy’s sitting there and he’s got both legs up on the desk and I stood at the window and he didn’t even bother turning his head. Like, it is just so disrespectful. And I thought, “I’ve worked in offices all my life. I would never allow anybody to come in and see me with both legs up on the desk, splayed out like this when I’m supposed to be working.” And it just conveys such a level of disrespect to families, right? And it makes you feel that much more ashamed. And that’s what it’s designed to do. That whole process when you go in the door is meant to shame and blame. Right? That’s what they’re doing. And it’s working.  – Jeff, father.

Violated. Made to be a criminal. Victimized one more time. Humiliated. Ashamed. Being accused before doing anything wrong. I feel like the Correctional Services of Canada looks at visitors and family as the enemy and I believe that they’ve set up structures to make you feel that way.  – Inès, mother.

Participants’ accounts reveal that relatives are even more shocked by the institution’s treatment of them, as it contradicts their beliefs concerning public service standards. 

I’m a 58-year old, law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. Don’t treat me like garbage. I’m not garbage. I don’t treat you that way. I am respectful. I say please and thank you and I say good morning when I walk in…  – Jeff, father. 

And, I got worried and shocked and, to me, they’re doing a public service. Some of the public is coming in and if I go to any other institution or place with public services, I should not expect to be treated that way.  – Gina, mother.

Family members come away from these experiences with tarnished beliefs and perceptions of the justice system, public services, and state authority figures. The correctional system has not only failed them but has subjected relatives to unnecessary additional suffering and collateral damage. Certain participants have expressed their resentment and mistrust towards the correctional system and its actors, and while others have expressed suspicion that correctional officers are responsible for importing drugs into the institutions. These testimonies further illustrate relatives’ collective negative perceptions of the carceral system and justice actors. 

Especially in Closed Visits, there’s no way we could pass anything to “X”. No way. […]. It’s coming in through the guards who aren’t scanned. It’s coming in through the workers who aren’t scanned. It’s coming in through volunteers and contractors who aren’t scanned, right? We’re not bringing stuff in. They’re, you know, it’s like they’re guarding the henhouse and the whole back of the barn is open, right? […] it’s really just intimidating, so it’s having a negative impact. It’s not preventing drugs from getting inside prison. […] all the visits are Closed. So, that drug did not come in with a visitor. – Jeff, father.

The frustrating part is that it’s not a person-to-person visit. It’s a through the glass visit. There’s no possible way for them to pass anything. That doesn’t make any sense to me. – Hannah, aunt.

I mean they come in with backpacks, and big heavy coats, and all kinds of stuff. And I’m not saying it’s just the correctional officers, there are volunteers, there are like the guy who filled up the vending machines- he comes in now his uh his uh – I’m not suggesting that he was bringing anything in by any stretch of the imagination but if you are going to apply this principle fairly, every single person should be subjected to the ion scanner.  – Quinn, mother.

Similar to Lee, Porter and Comfort’s (2014) research on families of prisoners in the United States, our research identifies relatives’ negative perceptions of the correctional system and its personnel. Family members’ experiences not only reduce their level of trust in government institutions but also challenge their perceptions of state values. Citizens are socialized to develop expectations of their government through their experiences and interactions with it (Lipsky, 1980). We have noted that participants’ experiences and interactions with the carceral system have negatively impacted their perceptions of the government’s values, practices, and standards. Despite these negative perceptions and general distrust of state actors, family members resign themselves to the carceral system’s practices to maintain the precious bonds with their incarcerated loved ones.

[…] we stay in touch with him… And we will, no matter what the cost, we will continue to do that… We do everything we can to make sure that he still feels part of his family circle, and that he is loved.  – Inès, mother.

Participants assert that the cost of maintaining these relationships is high enough to make them feel as though they are serving a sentence alongside their incarcerated relatives.

We also suffer the pain of the other person. – Ariana, spouse.

Then, it’s like, (cries), I also feel like I’m spending time with him (cries). And, as much as I try to tell myself that it’s not me, that I’m not the one who did it, but I can’t help it…(cries) I’m counting the days, too. It’s not easy.  – Georgette, mother.

While this study clearly illustrates the challenges that participants encounter within the correctional setting, their unique experiences do not end at the prison/jail gates. A loved one’s incarceration is also a challenge outside prison/jail walls, as it impacts various spheres of family members’ daily lives.