How to Visit an Inmate

In the Criminal Records section of our directory, we link to quite a few inmate databases. One popular resource is the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmate locator where you can find the location of federal inmates nationwide. Also on the BOP site are stringent guidelines for inmate visitation at federal institutions. We took at look at those and for the purpose of this article compared them to the guidelines for inmate visitation at California state institutions.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) manages the California prison system. According to their guidelines, each inmate must mail a visitor questionnaire form to each visitor they approve on their list. Visitors must then fill out the form, including details on criminal records, arrests, or charges on their own record. The CDCR will run a background check to verify this information and make a determination if that person can be approved for visitation. The CDCR seems especially keen to determine if visitors are being honest.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has a similar procedure, though they seem mostly concerned about whether they can allow convicted felons to visit current inmates. It is a federal felony for anyone convicted of a felony to be on federal prison grounds without the permission of the warden.

Federal inmates get at least four hours of visitation rights per month, unless these rights have been revoked as a disciplinary measure. The California CDCR guide explains that some inmates are allowed up to 40 consecutive hours of family visitation in an “apartment-like setting” on the state prison grounds. Sounds like a weeklong conjugal visit to us. By contrast, the Federal BOP makes it explicitly clear that no conjugal visits are allowed.

We acknowledge that it can’t be easy to be in prison, and it may be emotionally difficult to see a loved one in prison. Knowing what the rules are before you visit is helpful. In this article, we explain those rules. Some may sound a bit silly or extreme. So if you get clearance for a contact visit at a typical state or federal facility, here’s what to expect:

Your vehicle will be subject to a visual inspection, trunk inspection, and possibly a go-round from a drug-sniffing K-9 unit.

You’ll need proper ID and you’ll need to be on the approved visitor list. Some state facilities may require an appointment due to overcrowding. Even so, you may be required to wait a few hours if there is a lockdown or head-count going on inside the prison. You will be subjected to a metal detector scan and personal search.

If you bring minor children, have their birth certificates with you. They will be subjected to the same security search.

Some facilities will only allow you to bring in one key ring with two keys on it. Apparently if you own more than two keys you may be flagged as an escape artist. Really.

What to wear? On the Federal site, there’s a whole list of clothing articles that are verboten. Most apply to women’s clothing – no leotards, spandex, mini-skirts, transparent clothing, sleeveless garments, open-back dresses, etc. Did we mention no spandex? That rule probably goes for the men too, regardless of the 80’s rock band you idolize.

California also says nay to wigs and hairpieces… unless medically necessary.

Of particular interest is the ban on clothing that resembles inmate or staff attire. It seems they don’t want visitors being mistaken as someone else. So if you’re thinking of donning an orange jumpsuit as a show of solidarity, you may want to think again. California says that blue denim is restricted too, as the state prisons may issue uniforms in denim. Another outfit you should avoid… muumuus… especially ones that resemble prisoner muumuus. We can only assume they are referring to female inmate attire here.

Oh, almost forgot: No shower shoes. That should be a general law for all of us. Leave your shower shoes at home.

Obviously, weapons, drugs, and other contraband are not allowed. Don’t bring gifts for an inmate, unless you make advance arrangements with the warden.

The California prisons provide vending machines to visitors, which offer food and beverages for sale. No outside food is permitted, so this would be your only option once you are inside. They also provide digital cameras for photo ops with your inmate (since you are not permitted to bring in cameras or phones). Inmates can then purchase copies of these photos. It seems no opportunity for monetizing has been overlooked by the corrections department.

Pets are not allowed, unless you have a service animal. Religious texts must be approved before they can be brought into the visiting room; however, most rooms are already stocked with Bibles, Korans, and Torahs you can use.

If you require use of a cane, wheelchair, or crutches, you will be asked to leave these items outside the visiting area and use a substitute device provided by the facility. One can imagine the reasons why this rule is in place, but perhaps it is best not to speculate here.

In general, the rules and guidelines for inmate visitation in state and federal prisons are quite similar. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provides a more comprehensive online guidebook than the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

We also took a look at the inmate visitation guidelines for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Jail Facility. They are quite relaxed compared to the state and federal guidelines. LA County says that members of the general public may visit inmates at any county facility. Proper ID is required, and they will ask about your criminal background. The inmate information site for LA County does not specify whether contact visits are allowed for everyone. If their posted guidelines are for non-contact visits (through a glass window), it would explain the relaxed security requirements. To be on the safe side, we would still skip the muumuu.