In jails around the country, visits between inmates and their families are being replaced or augmented with video. In Maine, at least three jails have embraced the technology and at least three more plan to do so soon.
Jail administrators say video visitation is an effective way to reduce contraband and to cut staffing costs. But some prisoners, their family members and advocates say the loss of physical contact comes with a high price and it should not become the standard.
For the 200 or so inmates at the York County Jail in Alfred, there are no more regular face-to-face contact visits. Instead, the visitors’ room has been reconfigured with 16 small video terminals attached to telephone receivers, for family members and friends. On the other side of a heavy, concrete wall inmates have a similar setup.
At first, when the jail began using video, contact visits still were scheduled once a month. But Officer Lori Marks said there was still too much contraband getting in.
“I mean we’ve had people pass pills with a quick kiss. We’ve had people come in with drugs or needles in a baby’s diaper. People will have stuff taped on their forearms. So, when they’re holding hands they just slide into their sleeve. A bunch of ways,” she said.
Video visitation, which has been in use at the York County Jail for about three years, has not eliminated contraband. Lt. David Lambert said it still gets in through the mail, and newly arriving inmates can sometimes conceal it in their body cavities.
Two years ago, two women overdosed at the jail and were then revived. But Lambert said the policy has helped curtail the flow of drugs and other items into the facility.
“That’s the only reason that we’re doing it is for the safety and security of our inmates and our staff,” he said.
In Skowhegan, the Somerset County Jail also has incorporated video visitation into its schedule, but for a different reason.
In recent years, the jail has taken in about a third of its prisoners from other counties. Capt. Sean McGuire said it was difficult for family members to drive to the jail from the far reaches of Aroostook or even Cumberland counties. So they decided to sign a contract with a phone and video service provider to jails, Texas-based Securus Technologies.
McGuire said Securus made the deal hard to resist.
“It was effectively no cost to us. They lease a data line from us. They’re paying Somerset County for the use of that data line, but all the equipment and everything else, they brought in, they installed, they maintain,” he said.
But it does cost inmates and their families to use the service. McGuire said that during the first year, Securus was charging about $1 a minute. Now the fee is about 25 cents a minute.
Unlike York County, where visitors still have to drive to the jail to have a video visit, the Somerset County Jail has a remote system, which allows family members to connect from their home computers or even on their smartphones.
“I would say 85 percent of the people are communicating over their smartphone. We have guys and women who, once or twice a week, they’ll do a 20-minute video visit with their child just before bedtime. They’ll read them the bedtime stories, the whole nine yards, and it’s right there in the kid’s bedroom,” McGuire said.
What’s also different in Somerset County is that in-person visits still are allowed, but to cut down on contraband, they are noncontact, in which inmates are separated from their loved ones behind glass.
McGuire said some people still prefer those to video only. And many still think contact visits are the most beneficial.
“In a video visit, you can’t really tell what’s going on. It’s very constrained,” said Jan Collins of Wilton, who visited her son Gordon in the York County Jail when video visitation was first getting underway.
Collins said she found it disconcerting, especially after Gordon was injured by some other inmates.
“I felt isolated and distant. I didn’t really feel like I was having an intimate conversation with someone, a conversation where everything could be told, you could make good eye contact, you could feel what the other person was feeling and know whether they were telling you everything,” she said.
Now that Gordon is at the Maine State Prison, Collins said the visits are better because they are in-person and contact is allowed. So they can hug each other, and the visits last for two hours.
A member of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Collins said she understands the challenges jails face with contraband, but she thinks there’s another option.
“To me, more important than cutting off contact visits would be providing rehabilitation services so there isn’t a craving for drugs,” she said.
Bernadette Rabuy of the Prison Policy Initiative, which published a critical report on video visitation in 2015, said studies show that in-person visits, even behind glass, are important because they help maintain family ties and reduce the likelihood that a prisoner will reoffend.
She views in-person visits as a correctional best practice, and her group is is encouraging legislation around the country to preserve them. She said jail administrators understand it’s important, too.
“But they see the ability to cut down on the costs of paying correctional staff as worth it and a reason to get rid of in-person visits.” Rabuy said.
And that’s one reason why Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said his jail will start offering video visitation this year, with the hope that in-person visits can be reduced.
“We’re hoping that with this increased form of contact through the video visitation that maybe we’ll have less traffic in and out of here, and it will put less stress on scheduling because it involves more staff time to supervise these visits,” he said.
Inmates at the jail say they welcome the option of video visitation. But Shannon Dupree of Livermore said if in-person visits with her two young daughters were eliminated, she and the kids would be upset.
“Everybody should have the option of contact. I think it’s very important to see family, to keep you going,” she said.
In addition to Androscoggin, at least two other Maine jails plan to introduce video visitation. Hancock and Cumberland counties both plan to install it in the next few months.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.