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A federal jail in Philly was blocking kids from seeing their fathers - until now

The policy at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, barred unaccompanied children as well as visitors who were not immediate family. That meant many kids and long-term, but unmarried, partners couldn't visit. The FDC announced a new policy in advance of settlement negotiations in a class-action lawsuit.

The Federal Detention Center, at 7th and Arch Streets. A policy there that prevented pretrial inmates from seeing their children has been changed as a result of a class action lawsuit.
The Federal Detention Center, at 7th and Arch Streets. A policy there that prevented pretrial inmates from seeing their children has been changed as a result of a class action lawsuit.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Last October, Dayna Walter despaired that her 2-year-old son was beginning to forget who his father was.

"When you're far away from someone and can't visit, it puts a strain on everything. You rely a lot on love and hope to get you through. You keep pictures around of him so his son can see his face and recognize when he's talking on the phone."

Her son's father, Keith Campbell, had been prevented from seeing his child by a policy at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) in Philadelphia, where he's been for the last year awaiting trial. The policy, which bars unaccompanied minor children, also excludes visitors who are not immediate family, including unmarried partners. That meant Walter couldn't visit; consequently, there was no one to bring her son.

Starting April 30, though, that policy will change — and the family will finally be able to reunite.

The FDC announced the new policy in advance of settlement negotiations in a class-action lawsuit in which Campbell is a lead plaintiff. The new rule allows each pretrial inmate one visitor who is not immediate family.

"For a large number of inmates, this will resolve the problem," said Benjamin Geffen, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center, which filed the suit with Drinker Biddle & Reath and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.

According to court filings, about 100 inmates were prevented from seeing their kids under the old policy.

But, Geffen added, it's an imperfect solution. "We remain concerned that some pretrial inmates may still have trouble visiting with their children. For instance, some inmates have children by more than one parent. This is hardly unheard of in 21st-century America: Even the president has five children by three different women."

The lawyers, in settlement discussions Friday, sought protection for those children, too, and assurances that the policy would not be restricted once again.

Mira Baylson, a lawyer with Drinker Biddle & Reath, said that the FDC agreed to notify the lawyers of any policy change. As well, she said, "I think the FDC is going to look at special-exception visiting requests for people [with multiple children] with a favorable eye."

The FDC holds about a thousand inmates, most of them pretrial. The pretrial inmates (but not sentenced ones) had been subject to the stricter policy since July 2016. A spokesman for the detention center told the Inquirer and Daily News last year that the policy change was created in response to an influx of illegal drugs entering the facility through the visiting room.

"The policy was one of the strictest in the entire country," Geffen said. "[It] applied only to people who enjoyed the presumption of innocence."

It was the most restrictive policy of any federal detention center, he said. It's also substantially more limiting than conditions in Philadelphia's county jails, where inmates are restricted to one hour of visitation per week but are not restricted to a set visiting list, and in Pennsylvania state prisons, where each inmate can include up to 40 names on a list of approved visitors.

Lindsey Cramer, a researcher at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center who studies effects of parental incarceration on children, said jail and prison visitation policies vary widely by jurisdiction, and from one facility to the next.

But, she said, research indicates there are benefits to more welcoming policies.

Prisoners who have frequent contact, including visitation, with their family members are less likely to recidivate, some studies have found. And while kids of incarcerated parents are at elevated risk for behavioral and substance abuse problems, researches have found that visits — under child-friendly conditions — could improve outcomes for kids.

"There's research showing contact visits help foster that parent-child bond," Cramer said. "It supports them and gives them the foundation to be better at school, to have better social and emotional well-being."

On the other hand, she added, "some literature out there says the visiting process may cause more stress or trauma for the child."

Cramer said there's a need for more research, and for institutions to take measures to make visits less stressful for kids, such as by limiting searches of children.

The Bureau of Prisons Public Information Office confirmed the new policy was announced to inmates April 9, but declined to comment further.

Baylson said the legal team will watch the implementation carefully.

"We're very hopeful," she said. "We take the FDC at their word that they are trying to implement this so people can connect with their children and maintain ties to the community."