By Christopher Zoukis
The Federal Detention Center (FDC) in downtown Philadelphia on April 30 changed its policies on who can visit inmates being held there while awaiting trial or sentencing. Since July 2016, the facility had refused to allow those those inmates to receive visits from anyone who is not an immediate member of their family – which was defined as including only parents, step-parents, foster parents, siblings, current spouses, and children
That policy not only blocked unmarried partners from visiting inmates, but also effectively excluded the children pre-trial inmates had with those partners. That’s because FDC excludes visits by any unescorted minors under the age of 16, and requires a child’s escort to be a member of the inmate’s immediate family. So a pre-trial inmate’s child by a former spouse or an unmarried partner would be barred from visiting, unless a current spouse or other family member recognized by the FDC’s draconian definition was able and willing to accompany the child.
The federal class-action lawsuit, filed last October by lead co-plaintiffs Allen Woods and Keith Campbell, both awaiting trial and proclaiming their innocence, notes that while regulations issued by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) call for encouraging “visiting by family, friends and community groups to maintain the morale of the inmate and to develop closer relationships between the inmate and family members or others in the community,” the Philadelphia facility’s policy on inmate visitation was “among the most restrictive in the federal correctional system.”
In fact, the litigation observed, the visitation policy at the center-city Philadelphia facility was more restrictive for inmates awaiting trial than it was for inmates in the same facility who had been convicted and sentenced. As a result, inmates whose innocence by law was legally assumed nevertheless faced more stringent visitor restrictions than those who had pleaded or been adjudged guilty. Ironically, if the pre-trial detainees were eventually convicted, they would then have an easier time maintaining contact with their extended families.
The lawsuit also observed the Philadelphia FDC visitor restrictions were more severe than policies in effect at some high-security federal prisons, which allowed visits by more distant relatives and by unrelated friends.
Filed in federal court in Philadelphia, the lawsuit (Woods andCampbell v. Marler) sued the warden seeking injunctive and declaratory relief, claiming the FDC’s visitation deprived them of their right to receive visits from their minor children, in violation of their constitutional rights under the First and Fifth Amendments.
The policy change made at the end of this April was prompted by settlement negotiations to end a class-action lawsuit brought against the FDC by the Public Interest Law Center and the Philadelphia Institutional Law Project; the Philadelphia law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath also represented the inmate plaintiffs in the case.
The lawsuit maintained the FDC’s former policy prevented about 100 inmates there from receiving visits from their children. The facility’s new policy allows an inmate being held before trial to be visited by one visitor not a member of his or her family. An attorney with the Public Interest Law Center says the new policy will resolve the complaints “a large number of inmates” had with the FDC’s former policy.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.