May 2, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver
“When a loved one is sentenced to prison, if ever there was a time when they need the support of their family, this is the moment. Their greatest fear beyond the risk of injury or death at the hands of another inmate, is feeling abandoned. Dennis, that’s the message I have for your readers.”
It isn’t often that you meet a lawyer truly dedicated to using his skills to help those who society has cast adrift. But in his career as a lawyer, 75-year-old Paul Comiskey has been one of the greatest friends any prisoner —and their family — could wish for.
Comiskey’s path in life led, first, to becoming a Jesuit priest, and with an interest in law, attended UC Davis law school. Working in the Prison Law Clinical Program, handling cases under a lawyer’s supervision, this was more than a part-time job. He found his true calling, prisoner advocacy, trying to improve prison conditions, and opening his Northern California law office in 1976.
Life takes us in directions we cannot predict. Meeting Cynthia, a Chinese-American, “The most beautiful, intelligent and competent woman I had ever met” led to a three-year friendship, love and marriage in 1992, he happily explained. Later she would manage his office.
You and the Law asked Comiskey what families need to know about remaining in contact with a loved one who is sent to prison.
Letters, and phone calls are critically important to morale
“When sentenced to prison, an inmate first goes to a ‘reception center,’ depending upon the state and institution, for less than a month up to 90 days. Visits — extremely rare at this stage — will be non-contact.
“Therefore, letters and phone calls become critical to morale — both for the inmate and family,” he notes, adding:
“A letter can be a brilliant ray of sunshine in an inmate’s cell. However, realize that in-coming and out-going correspondence will be read by prison staff for security reasons. An excellent idea — if permitted — is to include stamps so that the person who is in prison will have postage to write back.
“Inmates are allowed to make phone calls periodically, but how often depends upon where they are housed. While the freedom to do so becomes greater over time, even with significantly reduced rates which went into effect recently, per minute charges can be very expensive and large monthly bills are still common. There are several telecommunication companies which specialize in prison calling plans, with potentially substantial per-call savings.
“Both family and the inmate must understand that calling from a prison means that calls are going to be recorded and there are time limits. Also, the phone might be located on the exercise yard and there could easily be a line of people waiting.
“So, my advice to those people inside prison is simple: Don’t hog the phone. Instead, develop the art of letter writing. Think of World War II when soldiers wrote home and eagerly awaited for mail from their loved ones.”
Visits — More complicated than most people realize
Any lawyer who has met with a client in prison knows that this is a world where security — safety of staff, inmates, visitors and the public — is the most important concern, leaving one question on the minds of prison staff: Could the visitor be a risk?
Comiskey explains the procedure that all visitors must go through:
“In general, contact visits with an inmate will only occur at the prison where they will serve their time, after leaving the reception center, and requires going through an approval process. This starts when the prisoner sends a form to the people wanting to visit, requiring that they list all their arrests and criminal convictions.
“If you have been arrested or convicted of anything, list it,” Comiskey stresses. “Yes, the prison will obtain a rap sheet, but a failure to reveal a conviction might be seen as giving false information and the visit denied. If you can’t recall the details of an arrest or conviction, try to provide an approximate date and place.
“So, if you can’t remember all of your priors, then list as many as you recall, and write ‘These are all that I can remember now but there could be others.’
“Visiting an inmate is a complicated procedure, and family and friends need to be informed of the many requirements. An excellent starting point is Visiting a Friend or Loved One in Prison, a free on-line publication of the California Department of Corrections,” Comiskey strongly suggests downloading and reading.
There’s more to a prison visit than obtaining permission, and what you wear can mean the difference between getting in or refused. We’ll look at clothing in a future story.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.