When family goes to visit a loved one in a county jail, they likely won’t be brought into a room where they can share a hug or gentle touch. Instead, they will be brought into a room with a video screen where they can see their son or daughter but not offer the comfort and connection that comes with sitting down face-to-face. Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset was the first county jail in Maine to exclusively offer video visitation, while the Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth is in the process of making the switch.
The policies around visitation vary from county to county because county officials make policy decisions in isolation, and the Maine Department of Corrections policies apply only to state prisons. These policies can be put in place without any state oversight because legislators in 2015 voted to repeal a 2007 law that consolidated operations of the county jails under the Maine Board of Corrections, returning control to the counties.
When given the chance for a contact visit, one may physically sit with a loved one, rather than be in separate rooms divided by a glass wall or screen. Jail officials in Hancock County pitched the switch to video visitation in part as a way to reduce contraband entering the jail, but eliminating contact visits has failed to stop the flow of drugs in county jails. In Travis County, Texas, where jail officials replaced contact visits with video visits in 2013, disciplinary cases for possessing contraband rose 56 percent in the first year after the switch, according to a 2014 study by the Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
The benefits of contact visits far outweigh any potential risks: in-person contact with loved ones stabilizes mental health for people who are incarcerated, and encourages them to make better choices. And mental health in our jails and prisons is a major concern because almost two-thirds of inmates in county jails are diagnosed with a mental health disorder, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The role that human touch plays in supporting one’s mental health has been well-documented. “Social scientists have shown in many studies over the years that supportive touch can have good outcomes in a number of different realms,” according to a 2010 NPR article, and the negative effects of video visitation have been documented as well. When Travis County ended contact visits, inmate-on-inmate violence and disciplinary infractions rose.
A video visit is clearly not the same as a contact visit. Not only is it important to consider the needs of the person that is incarcerated; how about the approximately 20,000 Maine children who have a parent incarcerated in a prison or jail? Why is it OK to take the affection away from these children? During the long dark days of Maine’s winter, they need to know their parents care about them, and their parents want to feel their children’s love. But in Maine county jails, there is less and less opportunity for vital connection. This is very concerning.
We can look to the Minnesota Department of Corrections for guidance. They issued a report in 2011 on the effects of visitation on recidivism that states that “decades of research indicate that visits from family improve institutional behavior and lower the likelihood of recidivism for inmates.”
Many Mainers drive hours to visit their loved ones in jail. Being restricted to a video visit feels like the ultimate dismissal to everyone involved, and it does nothing to help those convicted feel more human and humane. Imagine being a child who’s been counting on hugging his dad, only to have that wish denied without warning.
Most inmates will eventually be released into society. Don’t we want them to come back to our communities with their faith and respect for other humans intact? I urge Maine to make the right choice: standardize, stabilize and widen contact visits—not reduce them—in county jails.
Joelle Bouchard is a member of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. She lives in Bangor.