EDITORIALS

Videoconferencing is no replacement for in-person visits for jail inmates

Posted Jan. 13, 2017, at 7:01 a.m.

Allowing Maine jail inmates to interact with their families via video conferencing can be a great benefit. Using videos in place of in-person visits, however, is detrimental.

Maine’s county jails are increasingly turning to video visitation to save money and reduce the smuggling of contraband, according to jail officials. In York County and at the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, video visitation has completely replaced face-to-face visits.

Jail officials might celebrate nominal savings in the short term, but they might find the move counterproductive in the long run.

Maine lawmakers, corrections officials and jail administrators must ensure that video visitation doesn’t become a replacement for face-to-face visitors, but instead is used to enhance communications and contact between inmates and their families.

Almost every inmate in the state’s jails will one day, perhaps soon, be released and go back to living in their communities. Whether they have support from family and friends is a major predictor of whether they will improve their lives or return to jail. Research shows that one of the best ways to maintain needed support and connections is to allow inmates to remain in close contact with their families, including through in-person visits.

“Family contact is one of the surest ways to reduce the likelihood that an individual will reoffend after release,” a report from the Prison Policy Initiative concluded.

“When [prisoners] have that contact with the outside family, they actually behave better here at the facility,” said an Indiana prison official quoted in the report.

More contact is clearly better, and video visitation is better than no contact at all, the report notes. But video visits have their drawbacks, the report noted, including the reality that a video visit just isn’t the same as personal contact, that it can be expensive and that the use of video visitation often means the end of traditional visits at a correctional facility.

The Somerset County Jail is using video conferencing not to replace in-person visits, but to ensure its inmates can easily communicate with family members, without them having to leave home. For example, some inmates read bedtime stories to their children through the technology, Capt. Sean McGuire told Maine Public. Nearly a third of the jail’s inmates are from other counties, making it difficult for some family members to visit.

Families are charged 25 cents a minutes — down from $1 a minute — for the service, which is provided by a national jail video provider, Securus Technologies.

Other Maine jails, however, are using in-house video terminals to replace in-person visits. Jail administrators say this saves money on staff time that is no longer needed to oversee in-person visits and cuts down on the amount of contraband smuggled into jails.

A review in Texas found that after video visitation replaced in-person visits, the amount of contraband in the Travis County Jail increased, as did disciplinary problems and inmate violence.

Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring county jails to offer inmates two 20-minute in-person visits per month. The bill took effect even though Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, did not sign the bill.

“I just think there’s something inherently wrong with not allowing a father to see his family or a mother to talk to her husband or son,” John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, told the San Antonio Express-News. “How do you keep an individual from seeing his family? As another human, how do you do that?”

Maine should follow Texas’ lead and ensure that jails maintain in-person visits, for the benefit of prisoners and their families, and, ultimately, the state.

 

SEE COMMENTS →