The End of Prison Visits: Jails End Face-To-Face Contact And Families Suffer

One sunny day in October, at the Jefferson Parish correctional center just across the river from downtown New Orleans, Tiffany Burns, 34, was visiting her boyfriend.

The pair had been dating for almost two years and were still giggly in love when a late July knock on the door sent him away. Scooped up by the police after being accused of robbing a suburban bank at gunpoint, Chrishon Brown, 37, was sent to the correctional center while his case worked its way through the court.

A new, unwelcome chapter of their relationship began, with Brown using all his jail funds to call Tiffany, and Tiffany visiting as often as she could.

It was a long drive from her home in the Metairie suburb west of New Orleans, and could sometimes take about an hour each way with the traffic near downtown, but Burns was happy to do it. “When I visit, sometimes I forget about the glass and it feels like we are together again.”

She felt that way during her visit on 12 October, right up until the moment she walked out the jail door and was handed a pamphlet.

“Visit an inmate from anywhere!” exclaimed the heading. A photo of a smiling blond woman using a tablet with her daughter was featured on the next page.

“From now on, no more visits,” said the jail guard, as she shut the door behind Tiffany. “If you want to see him, read that.”

“I didn’t realize that would be my last visit,” Tiffany later said.

Under the new system, in-person visits are no longer allowed. Instead, all visits now must be done by video, either from a smartphone, computer, or at an offsite location.

The pamphlet, published by Securus Technology, makes using a video feed to talk to your loved one seem appealing. It says:

“Do you want to see your loved one more often? Stop missing out on:

• Watching your favorite TV show.

• Singing Happy Birthday.

• Reading a bedtime story … Never miss another moment.”

Under the new system, each video visit made from home costs $12.99 for 20 minutes. In-person visits used to be free.

This shift also raises a legal question: is in-person visitation an inmate’s legal right?

Video technology run by Securus and other companies is now used in hundreds of correctional facilities across the country.

Although data is hard to come by, Lucius Couloute, a research associate at the Prison Policy Initiative, might have the best guess. By scraping information from news articles, social media, and Google alerts, he estimates at least 600 US facilities now have video visitation programs in place. (Securus did not respond to repeated requests for that information.)

Gary York, a retired Florida prison inspector who writes about video visitation, says his experience supports those findings. He says that over the past five years, most jails in his state have turned to using only video visitation and stopped in-person visitation.

Indeed, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s data, 74% of US correctional facilities that implement video calling end up either reducing in-person visits, or eliminating them altogether.

Security concerns, say the program’s supporters. They point to the conveniences of video, a kind of Skype for the jailed, as a way to combat a nagging security issue: contraband. York says that contraband – drugs, weapons, and more – can be introduced even in no-contact facilities where inmates are separated from visitors by glass. “I’m not going sugarcoat it and say it’s only the visitors that do it,” says York. “Inmate orderlies and officers might be picking up a bag of marijuana that a visitor leaves in the trashcan and getting paid off to deliver it to the inmate. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.”

Another reason is the reallocation of jail personnel. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe LoPinto was quoted in a Times-Picayune article as arguing that the new system allows his office to “allocate resources where we think they’re needed, on the streets”. In-person visitation, he said, requires twice as many officers, and York agrees. (LoPinto declined to comment for this story).

Critics, however, say that potential gains are far outweighed by the costs.

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Filming Cops
Filming Cops 5618 posts

Filming Cops was started in 2010 as a conglomerative blogging service documenting police abuse. The aim isn’t to demonize the natural concept of security provision as such, but to highlight specific cases of State-monopolized police brutality that are otherwise ignored by traditional media outlets.

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