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B.C. conjugal visit valuable for inmates, should mimic normal environment: warden

imageMISSION, B.C. — It looks like a normal three-bedroom family home. A ceiling fan whirrs over a pair of sofas in the living room. The hallway shelves carry a pile of bed sheets. A refrigerator hums quietly in the kitchen as sunlight peaks in through a curtained window. But on closer inspection, several oddities catch the eye. The corded phone hanging on the wall is missing a dial pad. The television stand is packed with old VHS films. And on the hallway cork board there’s a laminated message on yellow paper outlining the four times a day the home’s inhabitants are expected to present themselves and be counted. The house is one of two used at the Mission Minimum Security Institution in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley for private family visits. The conjugal visit program allows eligible inmates to apply every two months to spend up to three days with either family, a significant other or a close personal acquaintance. It is in place at minimum- and medium-security facilities across the country and allows participants to meet in homes that are slightly removed from the rest of the prison. Barb van Vugt, the warden at Mission Institution, describes the visits as an important part of the prisoner rehabilitation process, one that aims to give an inmate the best chance at successfully reintegrating back into society. “We need to be mindful that the vast majority of our offenders return to our communities,” van Vugt said during an interview at the institution. “Part of that program is continued contact with family and maintaining relationships with people in the community who most likely are going to be supporting them once they’re released.” Van Vugt points to historic research conducted by Correctional Service Canada that has uncovered a strong correlation between private family visits and a drop in recidivism. The study’s results found that inmates who received just two private family visits — the average number for those who took part in the program — had a 22-per-cent lower likelihood of returning to jail than those who did not participate. The mother-child program, which allows children under five years old to live full time with their incarcerated mothers, also uses family relationships to encourage rehabilitation. Research published in 2015 by the University of British Columbia found that mother-child units allowed kids to bond with their mothers in safe and supportive environments, while also promoting positive social and parenting skills among mothers. All inmates are eligible for the conjugal visit program, except those in special handling, in disciplinary segregation or who already have access to unescorted temporary leave in the community. The adjoining medium-security facility at Mission Institution houses three units for private family visits. The residences sit side by side in the southwest corner of the double-fenced site. A guard station towers overhead, its long shadow narrowly missing a small snowman with a green, pail hat standing alone recently in one of the snow-covered yards. Van Vugt said she believes the public is, for the most part, aware of some version of the program, even if only through pop culture. “They talk about conjugal visits on TV. It even makes its way onto Seinfeld,” she said, smiling. What some people might not know is that children are also allowed to visit their incarcerated parents, provided the offence for which the inmate is serving does not relate to family violence, van Vugt added. “The ties that a parent may have to their children and the ability to be able to visit them is certainly a positive aspect of the visiting program,” said Brandon Banks, the assistant warden of operations at Mission Institution. The process of arranging for a private family visit is initiated by an inmate, Banks explained. The request goes to a case management team before working its way up the review ladder for approval. Before a visitor is allowed to participate in a visit, he or she must also undergo an assessment, which is conducted by someone from the team. Provided the visit is approved, groceries are ordered through and delivered by the institution, and the inmate and visitors are expected to clean the residence at the conclusion of the normally 72-hour visit.

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