14May 2016

Bad idea: Video visitation replacing face-to-face visits

San Mateo County, California, recently opened a new jail. While some are praising the design, calling it an example of “compassionate corrections” because it has radiant floor heating, a computer lab, and images of local nature displayed on the walls, others are concerned. Critics say the new facility was unnecessary. They claim that inmates numbers could have been reduced sufficiently through the use of bail reform and other criminal justice measures. Perhaps the biggest criticism, though, is the fact that no visitation is allowed by family members or friends except via video.

Face-to-face visits are considered best practice in corrections. Data from many studies supports in-person visits for inmates. These studies show that even a single visit during the time an inmate is incarcerated can reduce the chances of winding up behind bars again by 13%. Video visitation is not a bad thing; it just should not be used to replace face-to-face visits. Family visits are incredibly important and are considered one of the best predictors of a successful transition from jail to society. Video visitation does not provide strong emotional connections, and there is a lack of privacy.

San Mateo County is not the only place this is happening. At least six counties in California have replaced face-to-face visitation with video visitation in at least one facility. Nationwide, 74% of jails that have adopted video visitation have then eliminated in-person visits. Law enforcement authorities often prefer video visitation because it eliminates or reduces the need to move prisoners, and that saves staff time.

There is some hope that this situation will be remedied. In 2015, a law was passed in Texas that requires jails in the state that offer video visitation to also allow face-to-face visits. A California State Senator, Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, has introduced a similar bill to protect in-person visits.

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