San Quentin, Calif. Until this spring, convicts on California's death row could occasionally touch and hug family members and friends, and laugh and eat with them.
But after a fight broke out between rival gang members in the visiting room, prison officials banned the so-called contact visits.
Now inmates and their supporters are urging prison officials in California and several other states to reconsider such policies, saying it is cruel to strip condemned prisoners of their only physical contact with the outside world.
"It's the one bright spot that we had in our lives," California death row inmate Enrique Zambrano said in a telephone interview.
Nationally, about 40 percent of the 38 states that have the death penalty allow contact visits, according to a September 1999 survey.
Florida officials recently proposed dropping such visits there, prompting an outcry from inmates and their families. That policy is being reviewed, however, and no immediate changes are planned.
In California, a Department of Corrections team is studying the issue and is expected to report its findings soon. It is sure to intensify the debate nationally.
"Contact visits are on the decline and that is of grave concern," said Brian Henninger of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Prison officials say security should take precedence over an inmate's right to enjoy human contact. Victims' rights advocates argue those who have taken the lives of others should not be granted any concessions.
"I don't think anybody who's committed a violent murder, and clearly the people who are on death row have committed the most violent of murders, does deserve to have that kind of human warmth that they've taken away from so many other people," said Susan Fisher of the Doris Tate Crime Victims' Bureau.
The new warden of San Quentin State Prison has indicated she favors making the suspension of contact visits permanent. In protest, some death row inmates went on a brief hunger strike while family and friends picketed outside the prison gates.