Ezra Ayala, finishing out a prison term for felony theft, placed a quick kiss on his fiancée's cheek, gave her a squeeze and walked off with a memory he could hold into the night and beyond. The smear of her mascara stained his shirt.

Across the visitor's room at the Stillwater Correctional Facility one day last week, about 10 other inmates finished up their visits -- quiet moments spent in the effort to keep relationships intact, figuring out how to pay the heat bill, and shuffling the myriad problems facing families and friends who are kept apart by bars.

"It makes you realize how they expect you to work to get your life back on track," said Ayala, 21. "There are a lot of people here [who] don't know how to connect to anyone because they have no one who comes to visit them. I'm fortunate. I get a visit on every visiting day."

It turns out those visits, though they seem mundane, play a significant role in improving public safety and reducing corrections costs.

Inmates who receive regular visits from family, friends and volunteers are much less likely to be convicted of a felony once they leave prison because they develop strong support networks while imprisoned, according to a study just completed by the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

Although it may seem obvious, the finding could trigger changes across Minnesota's state prison system. It will likely prompt the Corrections Department to extend visiting hours, address decrepit conditions in visiting areas and reach out for volunteers to spend time with prisoners who've been abandoned by family.

"The ability to make a successful transition from prison to rebuilding a normal life can be measured by visits and shows there are significant savings in public safety costs," said Grant Duwe, DOC's director of research. "Just going back to prison for a technical violation of probation violation costs $9,000 a pop, so you can see how it becomes expensive."

Using a sample of 16,400 prisoners released from Minnesota's correctional system between 2003 and 2007, Duwe evaluated the relationship between prisoner visits and recidivism.

He found that inmates who get regular visits are 13 percent less likely to wind up back in prison because of new felonies and 25 percent less likely to commit probation violations that would put them back behind bars.

"We're trying to get past the point in corrections where we just used our intuition about what works," said David Crist, assistant Corrections commissioner. "In today's state government, that is not enough to make changes a reality."

Ex-spouses, no

At the same time, the study exposed a glaring issue Corrections officials realize they must address: Roughly four in 10 inmates in the sample never received a visitor. Such offenders face huge obstacles to creating a new life after prison because they haven't developed a network of people who can help with jobs, housing and transportation.

"Because many offenders have burned bridges with loved ones by the time they reach prison, facilitating visits from friends and family may not be an option,'' Duwe observed.

Among other key findings:

• It matters who shows up. Visits from siblings, in-laws, fathers and clergy were most likely to cut recidivism. Visits by mentors and clergy cut the risk of reconviction by more than 25 percent.

• Conversely, visits by ex-spouses actually increased the chance that a prisoner would re-offend. That may reflect conflict in severed relationships, which can create instability in an ex-offender's life.

• Frequency matters. Inmates visited more often were less likely to wind up back in prison after their release. The average number of visits per inmate was 36, nearly two visits each month. And visits closer to an offender's release date did more to reduce criminal behavior later.

'Medieval' facilities

Finding privacy in a crowded prison visiting room can be an exercise of the imagination. Look no further than the visiting area at Lino Lakes.

"Twenty years ago, the prison population there was about 200," said Crist. "Today it's up to 1,300," yet the visiting area can accommodate only 60 inmates and 60 visitors at a time.

The DOC has a $5 million renovation proposal that will be submitted as part of a state bonding package, but Crist was not hopeful. "It's one of those soft areas in corrections that is easy to de-fund when times are tough, even though it has a direct benefit to the public in the long run."

At the St. Cloud prison, the visiting room is considered dangerous because of poor sight lines for security guards. Walking in, a person soon wants to walk out.

"It's medieval, to the extent that columns are exposed, the ceiling tiles are smoke-stained, the windows gray and dingy. It's cold, not a pleasant place to be," Crist said.

Cold, unpleasant and overcrowded -- it makes no difference to the more than 100 offenders who are on a waiting list and yearning for a visit.

Amicus, a 45-year old organization that matches volunteers to prisoners based on interests and compatibility, currently has about 250 people going into state prisons weekly. It is considered by Corrections officials to be the most stalwart of prison mentoring organizations.

Amicus' Reconnect Program serves 2,100 offenders coming out of the state prisons per year and offers a support network that connects them with more than 50 social service agencies.

"Most people don't change unless they feel they're cared about by others," said Louise Wolfgramm, Amicus' director. "We operate on a philosophy as written in Matthew 25 - 'Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brethren, you have done for me.'"

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745