Teeters’ Typology of Prisoners’ Visitors

face of a prisoner

Negley K. Teeters (1896-1971) was a leading academic writing about prisons and also highly engaged with the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Teeters held an academic position at Temple University in Philadelphia from 1927 to 1964. He became interested in the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Prison Society when he moved to Temple. In 1937, he authored a book-length history of the Society. Teeters became a long-time member of the Society and served as its President from 1953 to 1960.^

As an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University in 1939, Teeter authored a scholarly article providing a typology of prisoners’ visitors.^ Teeters categorized prisoners’ visitors into three types:

  1. the prisoner’s relatives and friends
  2. the lay prison visitor
  3. the professional visitor

Teeters presented a relatively negative view of the value of visits from a prisoner’s relatives and friends. He wrote:

They bring him news from home. They pitifully try to bridge the gap between the free community he once knew and his lonely spirit temporarily enmeshed in problems they can know so very superficially. Prison visits of this sort have always been pathetic to contemplate due to the emotional content involved and also because they are so inadequate.

Teeters suggested applying penological expertise to the selection of friends and family to visit the prisoner.

Teeters also presented a relatively negative view of professional visitors. He wrote:

Staff workers of organizations such as the Salvation Army, prison welfare societies, churches and missions all feel that they are making a definite contribution to the well being of the prisoner. It is not the purpose here to evaluate the work done by such groups but it is not out of place to suggest that it would be wise procedure on the part of the prison management to call for periodic reports from such visitors. It is conceivable that much harm can be done the individual prisoner by promiscuous unsupervised visitors from such organizations, regardless of their humanitarian motives. Tactless remarks regarding religion, or appealing sentimentality to “loved ones at home” may develop emotional states within the immured inmate which may be downright harmful. Tampering with the personality of an individual is dangerous business and the least the management can do is to insist on a closer supervision of all who come within this category.

In the ordinary life, most persons have frustrating or painful communicative experiences. Nonetheless, Teeters’ emphasis on the power of communication (“tampering with the personality of an individual”) and its dangerousness is extraordinary. But within the sphere of penal policy, acute concern about communication has under-appreciated precedent.

Teeters was most positive about lay visitors. By lay visitors, Teeters seems to have meant visitors like those that the Pennsylvania Prison Society provided. He emphasized that the prisoner must have the freedom to reject, without any repercussions, any visitor. On the other side, Teeters wanted lay visitors to be subject to selection by penal professionals:

Since lay prison visiting serves the function of bridging the gap between the institution and the community, a careful selection of potential visitors is essential. Only genuinely interested individuals should be approached. A cross-section of citizens might include salesmen, insurance men, mature students, artisans and mechanics, lawyers and other professional men and, in short, any person who is socially mature enough to appreciate the responsibility of the service to be rendered.

Teeters also stated that the lay visitors should be free to stop visiting a prisoner at any time. The extent of that freedom may differentiate a lay visitor from a professional visitor. Teeters apparently was confident that sufficient lay visitors would be willing to render voluntarily the services that he described.

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