- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2011

RICHMOND — Jerry Jackson wants to see his friends before he is executed, possibly later this year.

Thomas Porter wants to hug his mother and wife.

Some inmates on Virginia’s death row are asking the Department of Corrections to change its policy so they can have contact visits with their family and friends. The visits were banned in 2008 amid concerns outsiders could smuggle cell phones or other contraband to the men on death row, who now number 11.

All death row visits are done in booths separated by a glass partition, with both parties speaking through telephones.

“I have never stated that I don’t deserve to be in prison. I took a life, so I deserve to be in prison,” said Porter, who was sentenced to death for killing Norfolk Police Officer Stanley Reaves in 2005. “But it’s making my family a victim.”

The department allows visits from family members, but friends and others are prohibited. Jackson wants to see three longtime female friends before he is executed for raping and murdering 88-year-old Ruth Phillips in 2001.

“I just want to see them one last time just to thank them for being there for me,” Jackson said of his friends.

Of the nation’s 34 death penalty states, Virginia and 22 others allow only visits through glass partition while 10 allow visits in the same room where offenders and visitors can touch. In Ohio, visitors are separated by glass, but there is a slot that allows inmates and visitors to hold hands.

Both Jackson and Porter, who talked to the AP via telephone, have asked officials for expanded visits. Jackson said he and others asked department director Harold Clarke, who took over the agency in November, to change the policy when he visited death row a few months ago, but nothing changed. Inmates’ family members also have asked the department to change the policy.

“Director Clarke is aware of this issue and understands the concerns of the inmates,” department spokesman Larry Traylor said.

Mr. Traylor said the policy allows inmates to request a contact visit, which is to be viewed on a case-by-case basis. Since 2008, a handful of inmates have done so but none have been granted, he said.

Jackson and Porter complained that no rules were broken by death row inmates that resulted in the policy change. Yet they say there have been instances in which general population inmates received contraband during contact visits, but the visits weren’t taken away for all general population offenders.

Mr. Traylor said the policy is meant to avoid the issues on death row before they occur. He pointed to instances in Texas, where several cell phones were confiscated from death row inmates in 2008.

One of them was taken from a condemned inmate who made threatening calls to a legislator.

“It comes down to illegal contraband such as cell phones, weapons, drugs, etc. entering the secure environment,” he said. “This policy completely eliminates that possibility.”

Mr. Traylor said the department also must take into account the feelings of victims’ family members, some of whom have complained that inmates get to visit with their family the day they are executed.

“I don’t get to hug my mother, either,” said Richard Phillips, who found his mother Ruth dead after going to check on her when she failed to show up for church.

“Prison is not a pleasant place. It’s not the idea that it’s a country club,” he said. “It’s too bad that these people do things that get themselves in trouble, but that’s the way it is.”

Mikhaela Payden-Travers, a friend of Jackson’s who wants to visit him, said she understands why victims’ family members would feel that way, but that it’s “never OK to not let someone say goodbye.”

“Being on death row, it’s a very difficult place to be. It’s a place to despair,” she said. “Most people are coming to terms with themselves, what they’ve done with their lives. … In order for men on the row to be able to grow, they need to have contact with their friends and family and the people who are going to support them and dealing with all those emotions.”

Ms. Payden-Travers started writing to Jackson several years ago when she was working for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. She now lives in San Diego, and tries to keep in touch with her friend through letters and the occasional $50 phone call. She wants to see him one more time before he’s put to death.

“What’s hard is that I’ve come to care for him like a brother, and I won’t be able to say goodbye,” she said.