I’m in prison and I just had my first contact visit in 500 days. To reduce recidivism, prisons need to prioritize human contact.

A visitation requests box in a max-security prison in Louisiana.
A visitation requests box in a max-security prison in Louisiana. Getty
  • I’m incarcerated in Washington, and I just had my first contact visit in over 500 days.
  • Studies show that a prisoner’s human contact with loved ones makes it easier to reenter society.
  • If correctional departments truly want to avoid recidivism, they should prioritize prison visits.
  • Christopher Blackwell is a writer who is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Nervously, I paced, waiting to be called. I wasn’t the only one. All of us waiting to be called were anxiously trying to keep ourselves busy, excited to experience what we’d been deprived of for far too long.

It had been over 18 months since any of us had contact visits with our loved ones. I was about to see my wife – heart racing, beating fast with anticipation at the thought of finally having her in my arms again. Today, finally, reality was taking over, and seeing her wasn’t just a fantasy in my mind anymore. It had been 531 days since our last embrace.

How had we gone so long without a single hug or kiss?

“What’s taking so long? When are they gonna call us?” I thought to myself. The minutes felt like hours, each one harder to sit through than the last. My thoughts were broken by the crack of the intercom speaker. “Powell, Blackwell, Jenson, and James report to the booth for visit,” bellowed the distorted speaker. I froze for a second. This was real, I was really about to have Chelsea in my arms again. Reality hit, and I quickly walked towards the door.

The walk to the visit room seemed like it would never end. I had to keep reminding myself to just place one foot in front of the other. There were other prisoners walking with me – talking and laughing – but I couldn’t make out the majority of what they were saying. I was consumed with the thought of holding her, smelling her scent, and feeling her warm skin pressed tightly against mine after all this time.

Still anxious, as if a guard would come out of the building, stop us on the walkway, and tell us visits were cancelled, I continued to walk, speeding up my pace. I needed to get there before our time was taken away again.

We’ve waited for this for so long. We got married at the height of the pandemic in a no-contact prison ceremony. Countless days during the void since we’d last seen each other were spent shedding tears, struggling to maintain our connection, but refusing to drift apart.

It was a long and extremely painful struggle – one that’s not completely over – and often felt to be too much at times. Over the traumatic period, we continuously reminded each other of all we had to be thankful for, spent hours on the phone, sometimes in silence just to know we were close and in the same “space.” Nothing could tear us apart, and we made sure to always remind ourselves of that.

Following the other prisoners walking towards the visit room, I approached the door. A guard greeted us. He was respectful, and even tried to crack some jokes. I guess he was trying to lighten the mood. I didn’t really hear anything he said, giving a fake laugh and nod, but I was only able to focus on getting through the door to my wife.

After being searched by the guard, I was granted access to the room where my wife now sat waiting, just as anxious as I was.

There she was. She was beautiful in her summer dress. Little sparkling strawberries that decorated the dress shimmered in the fluorescent lights. She was always the more stylish one. Her green eyes pulled me in and the wait was over. All the time we had been forced to be apart faded away like it’d never even happened. We were lost, encircled by each other’s arms, holding on tight.

I’d honestly forgotten what it felt like to be held, to feel her loving heart pressed against mine – at that moment they must have been beating in rhythm, because everything around me faded away. For a moment, I wasn’t in prison. I was lost in our own little world, a world where nothing mattered but us. I had longed for this every day since our last embrace. Holding my wife, I was reminded of just how important another human’s touch can be, just how much we had missed over the time spent apart.

Looking around the room it was clear everyone felt the same. Kids were climbing on their dads, eyes bright and full of smiles. Parents were laughing as they hugged their sons. The atmosphere was different – this was the first time in a year and a half I’d seen a whole room full of people genuinely happy.

Chelsea and I sat down, consumed with each other’s presence. We must have said, “I love you” a thousand times. Before long, we were deep in conversation, enjoying the company we’d so dearly missed. Our hands continued to run over the other’s, never pulling apart, greedy for any contact we could receive from the other. It quickly felt like the past 18 months had been nothing more than a distant nightmare, our attention only able to feel the moment we were now so thankful to have.

The three hours we were given evaporated in what seemed like minutes, and before we knew it, the intercoms were telling everyone, “visits are now closed, please exit the visit room.”

Sad and struggling to realize we’d be forced to spend another month apart, we stood and held each other. All I wanted to do was follow her out the door, and leave the prison – and all the pain that comes with it – behind. It wasn’t easy. Kids were running back to their dads for one last hug, probably confused on why they were forced to part again, but having no choice.

Nevertheless, the visit restored a sense of hope. It reaffirmed the spark in us, and reminded us of the feeling we have when we’re in each other’s company, a connection that’s impossible to obtain over the phone or in letters. There’s no replacement for human contact. It’s essential.

And not only is it good for our souls, but in prison, it helps to maintain and lay the foundation necessary to remain positive and on a path to a productive reintegration back into the free world. In a 1997 study, JD Wooldredge found that there are reduced infractions and “diminished perceptions of overcrowding” when prisoners receive visitors.

Additionally, studies have found that prisoners who receive visitors are able to better reintegrate into society after incarceration, and are therefore less likely to recidivate.”

Making the connections we have with our loved ones are not only of extreme value to us, the incarcerated, but to society as a whole. Because of this, it’s important to facilitate the development of positive connections between prisoners and their loved ones. Visits in prison shouldn’t be a privilege, but a right, and a top goal of Departments of Correction.

The Washington DOC can often be heard using the slogan, “Working Together to Make Communities Safer,” It’s time they prove it. The moments I’m able to spend with my loved ones continue to remind me that I’m somebody that’s loved and cared for – that my life has meaning and purpose – and knowing that allows me to strive for more: To be the best I can for not only those I love but also myself and my community.