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Solidarity in Action, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, 2017

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Solidarity in Action
A Guide to Visiting Incarcerated Community
Members

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project works to guarantee that
all people are free to self-determine their gender identity
and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence.
Sylvia Rivera Law P ro j ect
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N ew Yo rk, N ew Yo rk, 1 0 0 1 1
t. 2 1 2 - 3 3 7 - 8 5 5 0 • f. 2 1 2 - 3 3 7 - 1 9 7 2
www.sr lp.o rg

Third Edition
2017

Table of Contents
I. About this Guide							
II. Communication Prior to a Visit				
a. Establish and maintain communication via
letters or phone calls prior to your visit, if possible	
8
b. What if I am initiating contact for the first
	
time as a pen pal or volunteer visitor?		
9
c. What if I am writing to someone whose legal 	
	
name differs from their preferred name?	
10
d. Key points to raise prior to a visit			
11
III. Self-Care Before Making a Prison Visit			
a. How can I mentally prepare myself for a visit?	
	
i. Learn about prison conditions			
	
ii. Be realistic about emotions that may be 	
	
triggered in prison					
	
iii. Use the buddy system				
	
iv. Take care of your physical needs		
	
v. Understand time constraints and conditions	

14
14
15
15
16
16

IV. Self-Care During a Prison Visit				
a. Stay in touch with the person’s needs around
the visit							
17
b. Maintain personal boundaries			
17
c. Maintain composure when interacting
with prison staff						
18
V. After the Visit							
a. How can I care for myself after the visit?	
	
21
	
i. Advocate for incarcerated individuals!
21

VI. Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Visiting
Procedures								
a. How can I find information about people I am 	
	
visiting online?						
22
b. Do I need to be on a list to visit?			
23
c. What are my rights as a visitor?			
25
d. Are prisons and other facilities accessible for
	
people with disabilities?				
25
e. When can I visit? 					
26
f. How long will it take to visit?				
27
g. What if I do not drive?					
27
h. What kind of identification do I need?		
28
i. What if I am undocumented or my status is
	
no longer current?				
28
j. What if I am on parole or another form of state 		
	
supervision?						
30
k. What should I wear to a visit?			
30
l. What items are prohibited?				
34
m. What if I take medication?				
36
n. What if I want to bring children? 			
36
o. Will I get searched?					
37
p. What will the search consist of?			
38
q. Will I be strip-searched?				
38
r. What if I’d like to file a complaint in
	
connection to a visit?					
39
VII. What If I Can’t Visit?					

41

VIII. Conclusion						

42

IX. Resources							

43

X. Acknowledgments						

44

About this Guide
“But until my community is allowed the respect to march in the
front, I will go march with my community because that’s where
I’m needed and that’s where I belong”
				
- Sylvia Rivera, “History is a Weapon”
This visit guide was put together by members of the Sylvia
Rivera Law Project (SRLP). SRLP works to improve
access to respectful and affirming social, health, and
legal services for low-income people and people of
color who are transgender, gender non-conforming,
or intersex (TGNCI). Working with people in prison
has been a priority of SRLP since its start because our
communities are heavily policed, our lives are criminalized
and, as a result, TGNCI people are disproportionately
represented in prisons and jails. Through SRLP’s Prisoner
Justice Project, we work to ensure that our incarcerated
community members have access to basic means of survival
and safety from violence. One of the Prisoner Justice Project’s
main goals is to keep incarcerated community members
connected to community members on the outside.
We wrote this guide after visiting prisons ourselves as TGNCI
people, after hearing the stories of TGNCI visitors, and
speaking to Prisoner Advisory Committee (PAC) members
about how their visitors are treated. We do, however, hope that
this guide will be applicable to visitors of all gender identities.
Whether you are visiting a prison as a family member, lover,
friend, activist, social worker, lawyer, volunteer visitor, or in
any other capacity, your communication with an incarcerated
person has an important role and tremendous impact. We
hope that this guide is accessible to as many people as possible.

An important thing to note, however, in using this guide is
that we are writing about visiting someone in prison and
not in any of the other facilities that governments place our
communities in. We hope to provide information on jails,
psychiatric hospitals, detention centers, and other facilities
in future versions of this guide. For now, however, please
know that this guide is specific to someone who is in prison.
This means that the person has already been sentenced and
that they are serving time of one year or more.
As some of you may know from experience, having ongoing
contact with a family member, friend, volunteer visitor, pen
pal, or someone committed to fighting for justice has a deep
and sustaining impact. Unfortunately, many people in prison
and jail do not receive any letters or visits because of the ways
in which the prison system is designed to keep people on the
inside separate from people on the outside. People in prison
often report being without someone to talk to, someone
who is non-judgmental, someone who stays in touch, and
someone who provides support without making promises
they cannot keep. One way to nurture practices around
abolition is to support people in prison by establishing and
maintaining contact through letter writing and visiting. With
this guide, we hope that by highlighting some of the barriers
set up to keep us out and keep us apart, we might facilitate
more visits, support each other through state violence and
trauma, and utilize our love for one another to help break
down this horrible system.
— Juana Paola Peralta, Stefanie Rivera, and Mik Kinkead
Sylvia Rivera Law Project
Spring 2017

“As a PAC member, I deeply feel that the prison
visit guide will be a very important thing and visits
to those of us on the inside are very seriously
important for our well-being – keeping in touch
with family and friends.”

each other through these traumas and utilize our love for
one—
another
help break downCorrectional
this horrible system.
After
Xena,toWoodbourne
Facility
all, as Vijay Prashad so powerfully reminds us, “we must love
one another or die.”
By Chase Strangio

Communication Prior to a Visit

Establish and maintain communication via letters or
phone calls prior to your visit, if possible.
If you are writing to someone with whom you already have
an established relationship, it is important to acknowledge
the feelings you may have around this person’s incarceration.
When our friends, family, colleagues, and community
members are detained by the state, it takes away feelings
of safety, comfort, emotional and financial security,
community stability, and general collective resistance to
state violence. Let yourself feel the sadness, confusion,
disappointment, frustration, and any other emotions related
to incarceration. Seek support from other friends, family
members, a therapist or counselor, community health
centers, community organizations, and other support
services in your community. Unresolved or unexplored
feelings of sadness, anger, and confusion can negatively
affect the tone set in your communication. Assess the tone
of your letters to ensure that you are not speaking down
to, discriminating against, or shaming the incarcerated
individual to whom you are writing. Make sure you are
not asking your loved one on the inside to respond to or
be responsible for your reactions to their everyday reality.
This is sometimes called asking others to “hold emotions”
and it refers to unfairly placing the burden of unpacking
systems of oppression on the person who is actually most
affected by these systems.
Be sure to look up the local guidelines for what is acceptable
to send and receive over mail. Often times, more artistic or
8

crafty letters containing glue, glitter, stickers, etc. are not
allowed. Excellent resources on letter writing and other
aspects of prison and jail support can be found on the
website for Black and Pink. We highly recommend their
Pen Pal Guidelines.
What if I am initiating contact for the first time as a pen
pal or volunteer visitor?
If you are making a decision to initiate contact with someone
who is incarcerated with whom you do not have a relationship
already, you should ask yourself: why do I want to
correspond with or visit someone in prison? It’s really
important that we all take some time to ask ourselves what
we want to get out of this relationship. It is absolutely okay
to not have a complete answer, but it is good to ask yourself
what your motivations are. We all carry assumptions and
need to continuously challenge them in all our work and
engagement with others. Ask yourself what assumptions
you might have about people who are incarcerated and
how that might impact the way you write or what you
bring to your interactions with a prospective pen pal or
visitor relationship. Hopefully you are making contact with
the intention of building relationships since our struggles
as people of color, activists, sex workers, youth workers,
immigrants, trans, queer, and gender-non-conforming
people are intricately connected with prison abolition and
prisoner liberation. Please be conscious and aware of power
dynamics and actively seek support for the acknowledgment
and elimination of these dynamics in your visits and/or
correspondence.
9

Remember to be transparent about your own ability to
disclose any personal information about yourself, such
as immigrant status, age, history of incarceration, sexual
preferences, etc. Think about whether you are comfortable
sharing photos or sending occasional checks. These are
reasonable and common requests and you should be
prepared to answer them. It is completely okay to have
boundaries on sending money or sharing personal photos.
You can be an ally and still take care of yourself at the same
time. Some correspondence may feel flirtatious or sexual or
might trigger experiences that you may have dealt with or
are currently dealing with, for example: physical, emotional,
or sexual violence; or drug and alcohol use. Assess your
capacity to hear about the violence that is inherent to the
system of incarceration. Communicate your boundaries
clearly to the person with whom you are corresponding
when you are writing.
“(A visit) means that whoever is visiting has been
thinking about me and has put forth time and effort
out of a busy life to show me that they care for
me and I’m not alone. That is extremely important
to not just myself but other inmates as well, who
can at times feel the pressure of such a difficult
time. Knowing you have someone on the outside
who cares can dramatically affect your growth and
actions while serving your time.”
— De’Antey, Cayuga Correctional Facility
What if I am writing to someone whose legal name differs
10

from their preferred name?
It is important to find out the prison’s guidelines for mail
correspondence. Most prisons will reject letters addressed
to people who are using a different name than the legal name
they are incarcerated under (even if the person’s prison
identification number is written on the envelope). In some
cases, you can address the envelope using the person’s first
initial and full last name, for example J. Doe. However, some
prisons will even reject that mail due to the abbreviated
first name. Depending on the state the individual is in, if
your mail is rejected, it should be stamped with a reason for
refusal and returned to you, but mail is often confiscated and
discarded without proper notice. So again, it is important to
find out from the prison administration, or the person you
are writing to, about how the envelope should be addressed.
Additionally, ask the person you are writing to if they want
you to use their preferred name and pronouns in your letters.
Corrections staff open mail to inspect it for contraband and
staff may even read the mail. It is possible that the person
you are writing to does not want to risk exposing their
trans/queer/LGB/gender non-conforming identity to the
mail clerk and other prison staff. Other people may want
their legal name on the envelope and preferred name used
in the letter. Ask questions before making assumptions
about how the person who is incarcerated will want you to
address them.
Key points to raise prior to a visit:
When you are first discussing visiting someone who is
incarcerated, it is helpful to be upfront about how often you
11

will be able to visit. If you will only be able to visit once or
twice, it is important to say so. Making prison visits on an
ongoing basis can be a serious commitment. In general, we
should not set expectations that we are not able to meet. If
something comes up that forces you to change or cancel
a scheduled visit, it is important to communicate that as
soon as possible to the person you are planning to visit.
If you are visiting someone who identifies as trans, queer,
lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender non-conforming, or intersex,
ask them directly whether it is okay to discuss these identities
during your visit. For comfort or safety reasons, they may
not wish for that information to be publicly shared with
staff or other visitors. In some cases, they may tell you
to refer to them by a different name or gender pronoun
when in the presence of staff. During your visit, be sure to
remember and follow any instructions that you may have
been given. The same is true for any issues or concerns
raised in the letters that may be upsetting or triggering,
such as violence or childhood trauma.
Ask whether a contact visit or non-contact visit is
preferable. A non-contact visit may mean that the person
you are visiting will be spared an invasive strip-search.
For trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex people in
particular, avoiding such a search may be more important
than physical contact with a visitor. Be prepared that if you
choose a non-contact visit, you may have a thick Plexiglas
barrier between you, you may need to communicate mostly
via outdated telephones, or you may have to speak loudly
through holes in the Plexiglas. Be aware of any concerns
12

you or the person you are visiting may have with hearing
or participating in such a visit.

Self-Care Before Making a Prison Visit

Immediately before a visit, make sure that the individual
you are visiting is eligible to receive visitors. Sometimes
individuals may have scheduled medical trips or be on visit
restrictions so be sure to check a few days before.

Learn about prison conditions
You may have already learned a bit about prison conditions
from the person who is incarcerated. Additionally, it can be
a good idea to do some research about the particular facility
before a visit. Many prisons have family visitation guides or
other resources for visitors available online. Look at photos
of clothing worn by visitors and incarcerated people. In
some instances, pictures of the visitation rooms and cells are
also available. Some people find that researching a facility
beforehand can be a useful way to reduce some of the shock
and sadness that may occur when you visit the facility in
person. Organizations sometimes also publish reviews of
facilities.

It would mean so much to me if more people
would come to visit me. Especially if I am upstate.
We become both forgotten and isolated in prison
and a visit is HUGE! Visits are so important to me
because transgender people who are incarcerated
are subjected to constant ridicule, violence,
harassment, sexual assault and bias behavior. A
visit makes you feel love!
— Kitty, Rikers Island

How can I mentally prepare myself for a visit?

New York Tip:
In New York, The Correctional Association
publishes guides and reviews of the correctional
facilities in New York State.

Online forums, such as the Prison Talk Online Community,
create a great opportunity for you to connect with other
people who have made prison visits. Whether you actively
engage with the online community or just read through
old posts, many of the typical questions regarding prison
conditions and prison visits will be answered via these
forums.
For people visiting incarcerated trans, queer, gender non13

14

conforming, or intersex people, SRLP’s publication, “It’s
War in Here: A Report on the Treatment of Transgender
and Intersex People in New York State Men’s Prisons”, is an
important resource. The report documents the common
experiences of assault, denial of urgently needed medical
care, and placement in gender-inappropriate facilities.
Reading this report may help prepare you for some of the
trauma you may hear about during your visit.
Be realistic about emotions that may be triggered in a
prison
Encourage yourself to be as realistic and honest as you can
about the kinds of emotions that are likely to come up for
you during your visit. It is possible to feel shut-down, angry,
physically sick, emotionally triggered, and any number of
other ways. There is no right or wrong way to feel – and
giving yourself permission to engage with your feelings can
be an important part of engaging with the prison industrial
complex. Taking some time to think about the emotional
responses you may have while visiting a prison might make
it more possible to manage some of those feelings if they
surface during your visit.
Use the buddy system
If possible, coordinate your visit with someone else. While
it can be hard to advocate for yourself, it is often easier to
advocate for someone else, and having a buddy along can
help ensure you both feel safe and calm. Try to have someone
waiting for you outside that you can talk to afterwards
in order to decompress from the visit. If someone can’t
15

physically come with you, it can be a good idea to schedule
a time to talk with someone after your visit.
Take care of your physical needs
It isn’t always easy to meet physical needs while in a facility
and waits can be long. The physical conditions of prison
are devastating and it’s common for visitors to leave feeling
emotionally drained, dehydrated, hungry, and sometimes a
little sick. If you can, it can be good to eat a big meal, drink
water, use the bathroom, stretch, and take any medications
that you need before going in. You may also want to make a
plan for how to take care of those needs quickly once you leave.

New York Tip:
There are lockers in every New York State facility to
store a few small items. You may want to use this
for medication, a non-perishable snack, and water.

Understand time constraints and conditions
Each correctional facility has its own rules and guidelines
regarding visitation and specific visitation days and times.
They will also have time restrictions on the duration of
your visit and how often incarcerated individuals can have
visitors. Do your research and find out the specific time
constraints for the particular facility you will be visiting.
Conditions regarding visitation are also specific to each
facility. (See Section VI. e. “When can I visit?” on page 26
for more information.)

16

Self-Care during a Prison Visit
Stay in touch with a person’s needs around the visit.
People who are incarcerated, like all of us, struggle with
many issues but are denied access to resources to help
navigate those issues. When you are visiting someone,
try to stay in touch with what they need. Try to keep your
interactions as positive as possible and maintain a hopeful
outlook about the future. Remember that you may not be
able to change the situation of someone who is incarcerated,
but you can be present for them while you are together.
This might mean sitting in silence, reminiscing about a past
experience, or talking about something that is happening
for the person you are visiting.
Staying positive and present doesn’t mean being fake or
pretending that someone’s problems aren’t real. Think
about the ways that you support friends who are having a
hard time. Don’t be afraid to check in with the person you
are talking to about what is helpful for them and what they
do or don’t want to talk about.
Maintain personal boundaries
If the conversation with the person you are visiting turns to
a topic that you have already established as off-limits, don’t
be afraid to enforce those boundaries with them. Attempt
to do so in a gentle manner. Ask the person if they have
other people they can talk to about these issues. Try to
connect them with resources, including other community
members, organizations, or published materials.
17

Maintain composure when interacting with prison staff
Remember that prison staff need to abide by the rules the
prison imposes on them. Also keep in mind that how you
approach them will determine their degree of cooperation.
Try to maintain a level of respect with prison staff during
your visit. We recognize that this can be incredibly
upsetting and challenging, especially when observing staff
perpetrating violence against our loved ones. One of the
many challenges of prison visits is the reality of the power
that the institutional players hold over you and your loved
ones.
If someone on the staff is saying that you can’t visit the
person you came to visit or is treating you badly, use your
best judgment in the moment about how to respond.
Sometimes it can help to politely ask questions about
why they are doing what they are doing. There might be a
really good reason or a reason that they can’t control — for
example, the person you came to visit might have a doctor’s
appointment or a court appearance that is conflicting.
Other times, though, they might not have a good reason.
You can try suggesting alternatives, explaining something
they misunderstood, asking for more of an explanation or
a copy of the rules, or finding out if there is anyone else
you can talk to — maybe a sergeant or captain. Remember
that it is very risky to do anything that they might take the
wrong way or see as aggressive. If things seem like they are
getting really bad, it is often safest for you to just be polite
as possible, get out of the situation as soon as you can, and
file a complaint later or try again another day. (See Section
VI. r.: “What if I’d like to file a complaint in connection to
18

a visit?” on page 39 for more information on this.) If you
can remember the name or badge number of the staff, or
at least, the time and place where you spoke to them, it
can help with complaints or other follow up. If it feels safe
to do so, you might want to ask for something in writing
documenting the reason for the denial of your visit. This
can be helpful when filing a complaint later or even just
for your own records, or to share with the person you were
planning to visit.
If someone on staff is saying or doing something that you
think is disrespectful toward the person you are visiting —
like using the wrong pronoun — be very careful to check
with the person you are visiting before you do anything
about it. If your actions make the staff person angry, they
might take it out on the person you’re visiting. The person
you’re visiting may want to keep their gender identity
private from prison staff or may have decided it’s safer
to just not fight about it. If the person does want you
to advocate for them, though, and that’s something that
you’re willing to do, then feel free! You don’t need to be a
lawyer or have any other sort of professional role to speak
up. It could make a real difference in how the person is
treated. Be sure to follow the prisoner’s guidance on how
to go about it and what to ask for, though. Sometimes we
may think something is a great idea, but it turns out to
hurt our loved ones in ways we never expected.

31
20

After the Visit
How can I care for myself after the visit?
As emphasized throughout this guide, it is important to
do this work in community. Seek support after your visit.
Plan to discuss the visit with someone and share your
experiences while keeping confidential aspects of the visit
safe. Allow yourself time to decide whether you will be
able to continue making visits. Write down things you may
do differently on your next visit, if it would improve your
experience or the experience of the person you are visiting.
Advocate for people who are incarcerated!
The prison machine was built to isolate our incarcerated
community members. Staying in contact with people while
they are inside can be vital for resisting this violence and
isolation. Share the experience of your visit with others and
encourage them to make visits and write letters to people
who are incarcerated. In addition to sharing your story,
share the stories of the incarcerated person, if you have their
permission. Sharing their stories makes visible the violence
that defines the prison industrial complex. Highlighting the
voices of incarcerated people is also one way to resist the
prison system, which is constantly working to silence them.
As individuals connected to people who are incarcerated,
we must make efforts to raise the collective consciousness.
Bring the realities of detention conditions to the forefront
of discussions until our society ceases to be complicit in
the continuation of this system of mass incarceration and
community fragmentation.
21

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Visiting
Procedures
How can I find information about people I am visiting
online?
Most states have online search systems that allow you
to look for an individual by name and/or identification
number. You will need to know what name the individual
was sentenced under — this may not be the name by which
you know them. Doing an online search for “prisoner
lookup” and the name of the State they are in will usually
bring you to the correct site. The site should be free to use.
We recommend using this lookup service or calling the
facility directly if you want to know if the person has been
transferred.
New York Tip:
New York State prisons are operated by the
New York State Department of Corrections and
Community Supervision (DOCCS). DOCCS has
an “Offender Lookup” service online at
www.nysdoccslookup.doccs.ny.gov. You will be
able to locate an individual by name, but having
the Department Identification Number (DIN) e.g.,
01-A-0000, or date of birth, will provide a quicker
and more accurate search.
You may also call DOCCS at 518-457-5000
between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. with general
inquiries about individuals incarcerated in the
DOCCS system. You will need to provide the name
and date of birth of the person you are inquiring
about. Knowing their DIN will make it easier to
locate them.

22

Do I need to be on a list to visit?
Every state correctional agency and each correctional
facility within an agency will have different rules and
standards for visits. As a general matter, yes, you must be
on the approved visitor list of the person you would like
to visit. The following suggestions will help to ensure that
your visit entrance will go as smoothly as possible:
1. Complete a visitor application and get approval prior to
the visit (there are different forms for each state). To
find out more information, inquire online or from the
individual you are visiting. Many states have published
“Visitor Guides” that contain information on how to

23

complete the application or who to call.
2. Be conscious of how long it takes to get approved.
Some states take up to 30 days to process a visitor
application. Many states will reject applications for:	
	
• Prior criminal history within one year
		o The facility may run a criminal check — be
		
aware of any outstanding warrants that you
		
may have;
	
• Failure to complete form in its entirety: be sure not
	
to leave any sections blank;
	
• Any falsehoods on your application;
	
• Inability to show a government-issued photo ID
3. Determine if there are different guidelines governing
visitation for children. Children do not typically
require a separate application. However, if they are not
accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, they will
need a signed, usually notarized, form authorizing
them to participate in the visit. (See Section VI. n. on
page 36 for more information about visiting with
children.)
4. Determine if there is a cap on the number of people that
can be on the visitor list. Typical caps range from 1018 approved visitors, including children.
5. If you intend to visit multiple people, confirm that you
can be on more than one visitor list at a time. Some
states limit you to placement on one visitor list at a time,
with exceptions made for recognized family members.
6. Always be sure to check with the facility as different
rules apply to individuals housed on death row or in
solitary confinement, medical wards, or mental health
24

and observation units.
What are my rights as a visitor?
You have very few legally enforceable rights as a visitor in a
prison. Though no court has ruled that visitation in prison
is not a constitutional right, all courts that have considered
issues related to prison visitation have upheld the state or
facility’s ability to place restrictions on visitation and/or
suspend an individual’s visitation privileges indefinitely.
The prison can also restrict the time of visit, length of visit,
and conditions of visit. Even lawyers do not have the right
to full contact with people in prison.
Are prisons and other facilities accessible for people with
disabilities?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to
visitors as well as to incarcerated people. A reasonable
accommodation must be made to allow you to visit. This
may include relocating visits to parts of the facility that are
more accessible or accommodating a visitor with a service
animal. For example, in a Texas case where a visitor was Hard
of Hearing, it was suggested that a hearing amplification
device be provided or visitation be moved to an available
attorney-client booth where there was less noise.
If you are someone who identifies as having a disability, or
if you would need interpreters or other forms of access to
fully participate in a visit, we recommend contacting the
facility you will be visiting prior to your visit to discuss
any accessibility. Do not be discouraged if you are denied
access. Locate resources in your area and report any
25

discrimination.
“At Marcy, my grandmother whom utilizes a
wheelchair was subjected to hardship in getting
into the van which transports visitors to the
Residential Mental Health Unit (RMHU) – because
the facility’s wheelchair-accessible van was out of
order and no replacement was available”
– Stephen J. Torma, Marcy Correctional Facility
When can I visit?
Every prison has different visiting hours and specialty
housing units may additionally have different hours. For
the specific hours, you should check with the individual
prison. Be aware that there are restrictions on length
of visits, days, and number of visitors. Be aware that in
most correctional facilities you cannot leave the prison
and return to continue the visit in the same day. There
are often limits on how many visitors a prisoner can
have in one week and at one time. Some prisons may
allow scheduled visits. With advance scheduling, you
may be able to visit outside standard visiting hours.
New York Tip:
Some facilities organize visiting days by the last
name of the incarcerated person. You should arrive
early as you may encounter long lines and waiting.
Keep in mind that prison facilities have general rights to deny
visits if there is an emergency at the facility. This is often called
a “lock down.” This can feel really hard; planning travel to a
facility is hard and probably took a lot of work. Try to remain
26

calm. There is nothing you can do in these situations if the
whole facility is locked down. You may, however, want to call a
local prisoner justice resource or legal organization to let them
know about the lock down.

having difficulty physically getting to a prison, check with
your state to see if there are any bus services from urban
settings out to rural prisons. You may also want to visit the
website Prison Talk Online Community for tips.

If your legally recognized spouse, or in some cases, same-

What kind of identification do I need?
Every correction agency has different identification
requirements. You will need one or two state-issued
identification(s) to be allowed to visit any prison. Your
identification must be current and have your photograph
and signature. Typically the following identifications will
be acceptable (but you should always call ahead to be sure
of the requirements):
•	 Current driver’s license (any US state/territory)
•	 School identification (any US state/territory)
•	 Employment identification (any US state/territory)
•	 DMV non-driver identification card (any US state/
territory)
•	 Resident alien or permanent resident card issued by
the US Citizenship and Immigration Services
•	 US Passport (and possibly passports from other 	
countries but call ahead of time to make sure)
•	 NYS benefits identification card (Medicaid/food
stamp photo ID aka CBIC card)
•	 US Armed Services identification
•	 Consulate-issued or diplomatic identification
•	 Tribal ID card

sex partner who is not recognized as a spouse under state law
but may be recognized as a spouse under the prison rules,
is incarcerated, you may be eligible to have an overnight
visit with them in a private location. These visits are often
called “family reunion” or trailer visits and are sometimes
open to other legally recognized family relationships too,
such as visits with your children or parents. They are
highly regulated and, even if eligible, you may be denied.
Most facilities have an appeals process if you are denied.
Individuals in federal prisons are not eligible for such visits,
but if your family member is incarcerated in a state prison,
you can look into this option.
How long will it take to visit?
A visit will most likely be an all-day endeavor or longer if
you have to travel out of state or across state to get to the
facility. You probably should not make any other plans that
day. You should get there as early as possible as it may take
several hours to even get inside the prison.
What if I do not drive?
As you may know, many prison facilities are located a great
distance from the homes of the people who are inside,
making it difficult for visitors to reach them. If you are
27

What if I am undocumented or my status is no longer
current?
28

There are always risks to engaging with government officials
when you are undocumented or out-of-status, especially
in any area with heightened cooperation between local
law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement.
What if I am visiting a psychiatric facility....................................50
Presentation of a passport or consular identification
from
another country can trigger inquiries regarding
Conclusion..................................................................................................52
immigration status. Additionally, it is not uncommon
for Acknowledgments..................................................................................54
prisons and jails to perform background checks on

prospective visitors. For this reason, we recommend
exercising extreme caution if attempting to enter a prison,
jail, or detention facility for purposes of a visit if you do
not currently have lawful status under US immigration law.
What if I am on parole or another form of state
supervision?
Most facilities place limits on visits from people who have
been incarcerated in the recent past or who are currently
under state supervision. Facilities with these restrictions
usually enforce them by running a background check on
any person who submits a visitor application. However,
even if the facility you are visiting does not have a visitor
application process, you should inquire beforehand about
restrictions on visitors with prior convictions. Sometimes
exceptions will be made for family members or other legally
recognized relationships.
What should I wear to a visit?
While every prison is going to have a slightly different dress
code, almost all prisons require “conservative” dress and
enforce gendered, racialized, and fatphobic dress norms.
Some prisons specifically say you cannot wear “genderinappropriate clothing” but most will not expressly
communicate such discriminatory policies. Most facilities
have published guidelines that you can find online or by
calling the facility. Be aware that these guidelines are often
very discretionary, meaning one prison guard may interpret
the guidelines very differently than another.
30

When dressing for a prison visit, it is important to keep
in mind that you will be going through a metal detector
so be aware of any metal that you have on your clothing,
including underwire in bras or other accessories. The metal
detectors may be more sensitive than others that you are
used to from courts, airports, or other places.
Any dress deemed inappropriate by the prison is grounds
for denial of visitation. Some prisons and jails have visitor
centers that allow you to borrow approved clothing.
However, they do not exist at every prison and keep limited
hours. We recommend bringing an extra change of clothing
with you in case the outfit you are wearing is deemed
inappropriate. At some prisons, you need to wait outside
or walk outside for certain units, so bring warm clothes
if needed. If you are bringing an extra change of clothing,
confirm that lockers will be available at the facility for you
to store the additional items. These lockers are often either
coin operated or require a credit card for use. Inquire about
access to lockers before your visit.
For trans, gender non-conforming, or intersex visitors,
be aware that you may be subjected to dress codes based
on your assigned sex at birth or the gender listed on your
identification. Additionally, by law, you may be subjected
to searches by officers before entering the facility. Though it
may technically be unlawful, these searches are often
performed in a manner designed to be humiliating and
in some cases may be performed for the sole purpose of
determining your genital characteristics. In dressing for
your visit, be aware of the history of violence towards trans,
31

gender non-conforming, and intersex visitors. Enforcing
gendered, racialized, and fatphobic codes of dress and
conduct is an example of the racism, homophobia,
transphobia, sizeism, and ableism that shapes the entire
prison system.
Loose clothing that covers the majority of your body is
not only comfortable for the long hours that prison visits
take, they also generally conform to dress guidelines.
Be sure to check the pockets of any clothing you wear
into the prison. Be sure you haven’t accidentally left
prohibited items in them, such as lighters or cell phones.
Here are a few suggestions for dress given by various
prisons:
•	 Nothing resembling prisoner dress code (check with 	
the individual you are visiting for details)
•	 Nothing resembling staff dress code; check with the
individual you are visiting for details, but this usually
includes:
o No forest green, navy blue, or black dress pants
	
o No tan or white dress shirts
	
o No camo or army prints
	
•	 No clothing with words or images that could be
considered offensive
•	 Must wear undergarments, but NO underwire bras
•	 Nothing that cannot be taken off or will not clear a metal
detector
•	 No strapless, halter, bare midriffs, exposed breasts, or
genitals
•	 Nothing sheer, transparent, or fishnet
32

•	 No hoodies
•	 No skirts, dresses, or shorts that end more than 2” above
the knee
•	 No shower shoes or flip-flops
•	 Wigs, hairpieces, and extensions are banned in some
facilities and in others are subject to special search
(check the prison you are visiting for details). If it is
for a medical or religious reason, be sure to bring
appropriate documentation
•	 Every prison restricts jewelry, hair pins, and other metal
accessories. Check the specific prison for details, but
your safest approach would be not to wear any
•	 Nothing tight or spandex
•	 No clothes with holes
•	 No shoes with wheels
•	 No visible undergarments
•	 Pants and skirts must be worn above the waist
•	 Headgear is typically only allowed for religious reasons
•	 Try not to wear brand new, unwashed clothes as it may
trigger the explosive sensors; likewise, if you tend to
carry drugs, alcohol, or medication in your clothing,
make sure you have washed your clothes before the visit
•	 Most prisons will not allow you to wear hats, gloves, or
outerwear on a visit even if you need to walk outside
for some portion of it
•	 We recommend not wearing any clothing with
messages, especially if those messages are political in
nature. Your visit is already a political act
For transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex
33

visitors, some aspects of how we dress and express ourselves
may make it difficult to enter a facility. In general, we
have heard reports that non-metallic clothing items, such
as cloth binders, padded bras without underwires, and
structured underwear without wire do not raise concerns.
If your gender expression involves wearing genderaffirming undergarments or accessories that have metal
parts or are made of any hard plastic pieces, these items
are more likely to set off either the metal detector or raise
questions during a pat or wand frisk. It can be useful to
have a doctor’s letter explaining that you are wearing a
supportive medical garment. Another option would be to
reach out to a local organization who works with people
in prison and/or TGNCI people in advance of the visit for
support.
What items are prohibited?
Every prison restricts what visitors are allowed to bring
into a facility. While you should always check the specific
policies of the prison you are visiting, a good general
guideline is if you do not absolutely need it, do not bring it.
Many facilities do allow you to bring in a certain amount of
money in order to buy small snacks from vending machines.
It can be a nice surprise to someone on the inside to have
a snack with a visit as sometimes visits may mean that the
individual misses a meal.
•	 No guns, including stun guns, zip guns, bullets, or
imitation guns and bullets (bringing in contraband
could result in being banned from visits or arrest)
•	 No drugs (if you will need to take medication during a
34

visit, please see our section below on medication)
•	 No syringes
•	 No knives, imitation knives, box cutters, razor blades,
hobby blades, scalpels, scissors, brass knuckles, or any
other weapons
•	 No tools
•	 No metal or glass objects
•	 No padlocks
•	 No nail clippers and fingernail files
•	 No tobacco products and related paraphernalia,
including cigarettes, cigars, rolling papers, chewing
tobacco, or pipes
•	 No tape or other adhesives
•	 No explosive devices
•	 No matches or lighters
•	 No electronic devices, including cell phones or phone
accessories, personal digital assistances, or portable
media devices, including, but not limited to, iPods, iPads,
MP3 players, e-readers, pagers, beepers, laptops, cameras,
recording devices, or radios (*unless these electronic
devices are needed for ADA access, in which case you
should clear them with the facility before visiting)
•	 No law enforcement badges and equipment
•	 No liquids and beverages, including water, with
exceptions for baby needs
•	 No gels
•	 No chapstick
•	 No metal hairclips or hairpins
•	 No non-prescription medication
•	 No sunglasses
35

•	 No chewing gum
•	 Restrictions exist on photographs and documents
•	 No keys, except typically a single car or locker key
•	 No food (the facilities often have vending machines)
What if I take medication?
Experience tells us that if you can avoid bringing
medication into a prison, you should. However, if it is
medically necessary, you should follow these suggestions
and any others put forth by the prison itself:
•	 You may not bring any non-prescription medication
•	 You may bring prescription medication if it is in the
original container, prescribed to you. You must put it in
a locker. You may only bring it on to the facility floor if it
is a life-saving medication.
•	 Most facilities will let you bring in life-saving
medications, such as an EpiPen or asthma inhaler. You
may need to give the medication to visit floor staff to
hold.
•	 If you receive medication through a device that is
attached to your body — such as an insulin pump — you
will be 	allowed to keep the device with you, but you
may face resistance from the staff. It might make sense
to bring a letter from a medical provider.
What if I want to bring children?
Children are permitted if their parent or guardian is
accompanying them. If the parent or guardian is not
accompanying the child, most states require that a signed
document, often notarized, by the child’s parent or guardian
36

be presented. The document must be an original. Children
without this signed document are often turned away. You
may want to bring any identification you have for the
children with you, just to be cautious. You may not leave
children unaccompanied in the waiting room or parking
lot.
Facilities ask that children follow some basic behavioral
rules that vary from facility to facility. Some facilities may
have play areas for small children.
With regards to baby needs, every facility has its own policies
on what you can bring onto the visiting floor. Typically you
are permitted to bring in some variation of one blanket,
one clear plastic baby bottle and formula that you mix in
front of the guards, and one diaper. However, be sure to
check the specific policy of the facility you are visiting.
Your children may be subjected to searches. You have the
right to be with your children at all times during these
searches.
Will I get searched?
Yes. Prior to being permitted to visit someone in a prison,
the officers at the entrance of the facility will subject you
to various kinds of searches. These searches might include:
strip-search, pat search, wand search, metal detector, being
sniffed by dogs, or ion scanning.
You have a right to refuse a search. However, if you refuse
a search, the facility can — and probably will — deny your
visit. Generally, refusing a search will only impact your
37

ability to visit that day and not future visits.
What will the search consist of?
There are a variety of types of searches you may be subjected
to. You may be subjected to random ion scanning with a
hand frisker or other non-intrusive tests for detection of
drugs and explosives. You will almost always have to walk
through a metal detector. There will typically be a police
dog present during your search. Officers will also search
through your personal belongings.
You may also be searched by an officer of the same sex in
a private area. In most states, there is no clear guidance
to officers on what constitutes a same-sex search of a
transgender individual. However, it is very likely that you
will be searched by an officer of the sex you were assigned
at birth or the sex that appears on your ID. During this kind
of search, the officer may lift clothing or other garments.
If you do not pass the search, there can be a host of negative
consequences: your visit will be denied, future visits can
be denied, and the prison staff may even call the police to
arrest you if illegal contraband is found in your possession.
Will I be strip-searched?
A strip-search in a private area may be authorized by a
superintendent if an officer believes that all other search
methods are not adequate. An officer is supposed to have
reasonable cause for requesting a strip-search (i.e., the
metal detector indicates you may have contraband or
your hands test positive for drug residue). As with all legal
38

standards, there is no way to ensure that this “reasonable
cause” standard is followed.
SRLP has found that TGNCI individuals may be more
likely to be subjected to strip-searches because of the
discrimination we face. As mentioned above, refusal to
be strip-searched may result in being unable to visit, but
should have no bearing on future visits. If you are worried
about the effect turning down a strip-search will have, you
can call the facility in advance and explain you are a firsttime visitor and you have some questions about your rights
regarding visits and searches.
Different states define the term “strip-search” differently.
Most states define strip-search as removing each item of
clothing for inspection by an officer until you are naked
and then assisting in a search of your bodily cavities. This
may include running your fingers around your gums or
lifting external genitalia so that it can be inspected without
being touched by the officer. In other states, you may be
able to remain in your underwear and may not be subject
to a body cavity search. Strip-searches should happen
with two officers present in a private area; however, this
does not always happen. Strip-searches can be quick
or take a long time depending on the circumstances.

well.
While unlikely, it is possible that you may find yourself in
an escalating situation with a prison guard. If this happens,
please try to stay calm and keep your movements slow and
contained. If the situation isn’t getting better, ask politely to
speak to someone in charge. While the visit is important, it
is also important to protect yourself. Ask if you are able to
leave and leave as soon as you can. You can follow up with
the facility by phone to ensure you are still allowed to visit at
another date.
New York Tip:
The recommended procedure if something happens
during a visit is to first ask to speak with a security
supervisor. Inform the supervisor that you would like
to file a complaint against an officer. If you find that
inadequate or if you are uncomfortable making that
request, you can write to DOCCS following your
visit. The more details you include the stronger your
complaint is: date, time, place, names and badge
numbers of people involved, if known, and any
other documentation you may have regarding the
complaint. You can read DOCCS’ Family Handbook
for more information.

What if I’d like to file a complaint in connection to a visit?
Each agency should have a process for filing a complaint
against an officer or other staff member during a visit.
If possible, check in with the person you are visiting or
attempting to visit to ensure they want this complaint filed as
39

40

What If I Can’t Visit?

Conclusion

If, after reading this guide, you realize it isn’t safe or a good
idea for you to visit — that is OK. There are many legitimate
reasons not to visit — from concerns over immigration
status to realizing you wouldn’t be able to support the
person you are there to support. It is better to know this
now for both your well-being and for your loved ones.

After reading this guide, it is easy to be overwhelmed by
the number of procedural barriers that have been created
to isolate incarcerated people from their community.
However, we hope that the information provided can
be used as a tool for developing creative and sustainable
strategies to fight the systems of oppression that seek to
separate us.

And there are other ways to support our loved ones on the
inside. Below is a list of some ideas:
•	 Keep being a pen pal
•	 Volunteer with a local group that supports people on the
inside
•	 Create art for people on the inside
•	 Join a local pen pal group and, even if you can’t be a pen
pal, help with other tasks!
•	 Work to ensure that other organizations you are involved
with make space for people who are incarcerated or
newly returning home

41

As strategies are implemented and stories are shared, SRLP
wants to hear from you! We want to continue the dialogue
that was created when we began this project. Please email
us at info@srlp.org with your strategies for supporting
incarcerated community members, stories about visiting
facilities, and other thoughts you would like to share. We
intend to issue future editions of this guide that are updated
to reflect the experiences of more of our community
members.

42

Resources
The Americans with Disabilities Act —
www.ada.gov/2010_regs.htm

Black and Pink — www.blackandpink.org
The Correctional Association of New York —
www.correctionalassociation.org

DOCCS Family and Friends Handbook —

www.doccs.ny.gov/FamilyGuide/FamilyHandbook.pdf

Prison Talk Online Community — www.prisontalk.com
SRLP’s It’s War in Here — www.srlp.org/its-war-in-here
SRLP’s Self-Care on the Inside —

www.srlp.org/self-care-on-the-inside-guide

Acknowledgments
We express sincere gratitude to all of the members of the
Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s Prisoner Advisory Committee
(PAC) who continue to guide and inform our work. This
publication features insight and contributions from PAC
members: Jessica Brooks, Lesbian Andrew Brown, Synthia
“Oshun Remi” China-Blast, Diamond E. W. Coleman,
Ginger Love, Shaylanna Luvme, Xena Melissa Risa
Grandichelli, Kitty Rotolo, Stephen Torma, and D. Wilson.
We wish to thank all of the community members, activists
and advocates who inspired this guide. A special thank you
to all of the researchers, writers, contributors and editors,
including: Christopher Hamann, Courtney Sirwatka,
Rachael T., Gabriel Foster, Alisha Williams, Chase Strangio,
Gabriel Arkles, Michael Braun, Sara Maeder, Daniel
Faessler, Julie Krumwiede, Bryan Zubay, Lauren Groetch,
Alexandrea, Alysandra McCann, Alex McSpedon, Amy
Ballard, Bella Week, Kenneth A. Kreuscher of the Portland
Law Collective, Lincoln Rose of Trans Lives Matter, the
Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, and the
Center for Constitutional Rights.
And, of course, we are grateful for the creativity, artistry
and volunteer hours that transformed our various drafts
into this beautiful and functional publication. We would
like to thank Jonah Groeneboer for the design and layout,
Rachel Warner for the cover art, and Ben Reichman for the
Spanish translation.

43

44

Cover/Back Art
Rachel Warner
Page 1 //
tuesday smillie
untitled, [Sylvia Rivera, 2002]
2009
Ink, pencil on paper
original dimension
7” X 9 3/4”
Page 19 //
SRLP founder and Collective
Member Dean Spade and SRLP member
Calvin Burnap
Photo by Gabriel Foster
Page 23 //
CeCe McDonald holding a copy of
SRLP’s publication, In Solidarity
Photo by Gabriel Foster
Page 29 //
Sylvia Rivera holding Power to the
People sign
Original image by Diane Daives
Page 46 //
tuesday smillie
City Hall, 1973
2011-12
Ink, watercolor, pencil, collage on paper
original dimensions
11 3/4” X 12”

 

 

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