Across the country, jails and prisons have begun implementing a new way for families and friends to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones: video conferencing. Heres how it works: the “visitor” would log in to a video chat from their home or private room at the facility (depending on how the prison or jail operates) and be connected to the prisoner via a screen.
According to this article in Tech.Mic, over 600 prisons in 46 states have some sort of video visitation. And the trend seems to be growing, as many correctional institutions and families impacted by incarceration are seeing benefits in this kind of visitation.
In Illinois, for instance, remote video conferences have provided an easy way for families to stay in touch, particularly in the case of Menard Correctional Center which is more than 300 miles from Chicago, where many of its prisoners come from.
“This is a great way for them to stay connected,” says Mary Johnson, Prison Fellowship Field Director for Illinois. “I know personally when my son was on mission assignment for two years in Turkey and my grandchildren were born there, I loved Skype. Nothing was better than seeing them, sharing objects (toys, pictures, views) over the internet. So as you can imagine for a man who may never see his child in his life (because family can’t drive to the prison) this is a blessing.”
Remote video visitation also seems like a good option for those who have mobility issues and don’t feel up to the task of navigating all of the security clearances and getting pat down, etc.
“I have seen elderly parents/relatives come to visit their loved one and have to navigate through the facility only to be physically worn out by the time they reach their destination,” explains Liz Stanosheck, Prison Fellowship Area Director.
Similarly, for those with hearing difficulties, talking with a loved one in a quiet environment over a speaker can be easier than in a noisy visitation area.
In some regions, however, video visitation isn’t just an option for families; it’s the only option. In places like Travis County, Texas, and some Illinois counties, prisons and jails have done away with in-person visitation entirely, leaving families stuck with the screen or no time with their loved one at all. Jack Smith IV, writing in Tech.Mic, explains that in-person, physical contact is highly significant for prisoners:
“Anticipating the arrival of friends and family, making eye contact, holding a child’s hand — these are the experiences and memories that give someone the resilience they need to make it in prison. A visit can alleviate the suffering that comes cold confinement and the brutality of unpredictable violence that erupts between inmates.”
And the same is true for the families of the incarcerated, particularly the children.
“We know that babies thrive with human touch, and barely survive without it,” Johnson says.
“If the institution’s made this the only way to have contact with family members, I don’t see this as a positive way to reinforce rehabilitation with families,” adds Audrey Fay, Prison Fellowship Field Director for Southern California. “There is nothing like face-to-face.”
There are also statistics out there that claim that prison visits can reduce the chance that the person will commit a new crime or a technical violation. In fact, research conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections of over 16,000 incarcerated people found that any visitation at all, even just once, reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and by 25 percent for technical violations. (At the same time, since video conferencing is so new, there probably isn’t comparable research yet that examines the positive impact of video visitation on prisoners’ behavior, so it is hard to use these statistics as a strong argument for in-prison visits over and above video visits.)
Lastly, a video chat is only as good as the technology supporting it. Ashika Coleman, who is incarcerated in Texas, complains, “It’s just too much frustration to come down here, wait for an hour and then only get 25 minutes for a not-so-good call. I think the hassle is why people don’t visit me as much anymore.” (Coleman’s facility is one that only allows video conferencing for those who actually come to the prison for the call.)
Clearly, a complex issue. One that seems to have benefits, if done well, and huge negatives, if done poorly. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues and expands to more prisons in the coming years, and how it will impact relationships in the long term.