Sarah* is used to jail visits. Her husband, Ron*, is 5 months into a 16-month sentence at the local jail. This holiday season, she’ll make the trip to visit him once again. She will make an appointment, drive to the jail, sign in, and wait. She will be escorted to a room with a stool bolted to the floor and a small screen on the wall. Her husband, in a visitation room somewhere else in the jail, will eventually appear on screen. Although Sarah lives only 20 minutes from the jail, she hasn’t seen Ron in person in 20 weeks. A pixelated view of one another, which lags and freezes often, is all they will have for the holidays, and for the next 44 weeks.
Video visitation has been around for the better part of two decades, but its ubiquity is rising at an alarming rate. Many prisons and jails now offer onsite video visitation (what Sarah and Ron use; typically free) and remote video visitation (think Skype for prisons; generally expensive). In theory, this technology has real advantages: for families who live far from the facilities housing their loved ones, the opportunity to connect remotely is welcome. For prisons, it’s a possible way to decrease the threat of contraband, and cut costs.
In practice, it’s different. Offsite video visitation is expensive, and onsite video visitation introduces time and travel costs. Sometimes, even though families have paid in advance, remote video visits start so late that they are paying rates of $7.99 or higher for less than 10 minutes of screen time. Video visitation technology is frequently introduced at the expense of in-person visits. In fact, one prison technology company, Securus, contractually required prisons to end in-person visits upon adopting their video services.
Video visitation is not a replacement for in-person visits, but the companies making huge profits off of the (literally) captive prison market feel otherwise: according to the Prison Policy Initiative, 74% of jails that adopted video visitation eventually banned in-person visits altogether. The largest jail in Georgia is one of them. In 2013, Atlanta’s DeKalb County Jail eradicated in-person visitation completely. Upwards of 33,000 men and women cycle through the jail each year. You can spend days — even months — there before being convicted of a crime. There are also people serving the duration of their sentences at the facility, of up to 24 months. Video visitation is the only option. It’s free if you come to the jail, and costs $5 for 30 minutes if done remotely.
The price of video visitation at DeKalb, though relatively low for remote visitation (many facilities charge $1 per minute), is still too much for many families. A national survey revealed that roughly two-thirds of families with an incarcerated member faced difficulty meeting their basic needs as a result of their relatives’ imprisonment. The same survey found that these financial stresses are magnified by simply trying to stay in touch with an incarcerated loved one: more than one-third of families went into debt paying for phone calls and visits alone.
Being able to maintain contact with a loved one in prison isn’t only important for their family — it has significant implications for incarcerated people, and the facilities that house them. Decades of research show that consistent contact with family and community is one of the most effective ways to decrease the likelihood that an individual will commit an offense after release. One Indiana prison official commented, “When they (prisoners) have that contact with the outside family they actually behave better here at the facility.” More contact benefits everyone.
A report by the National Institute of Corrections concluded that video “cannot replicate seeing someone in-person, and it is critical for a young child to visit his or her incarcerated parent in person to establish a secure attachment.” Yet for parents in jails across the country, the reality is that they could go years without seeing their children face to face. Video visitation cannot replace in-person interaction. Family members with incarcerated loved ones who spoke to me for this article expressed frustration over a host of issues that highlight the failings of video versus in-person or even through-the-glass visits. The seats in many video visitation rooms are bolted to the ground, with cameras set at a height that doesn’t allow for eye-contact between visitor and inmate, preventing a sense of connection. The video quality is poor. But most of all? They just want, desperately, to hug their loved ones.
Public Justice and the Southern Center for Human Rights work to combat social and economic injustice through litigation, advocacy, and education. In the next piece in this series, we’ll discuss how we’re using those tools to empower people to fight back against corporations that exploit incarcerated people and their families.
*Names have been changed at interviewees’ request.