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Facetime, Skype, Google Hangout. These services help long distance lovers gaze into each other's eyes. They allow grandmothers to see their grandbabies in other countries. They allow parents to have virtual visitations with their children.
Now, video calls, also known as video visitation, allow family members to visit with inmates from the comfort of their own home. Since last year, over 500 jails and prisons in 43 states and the District of Columbia have implemented a video visitation system. Proponents of the system hail its low cost for prisons, while opponents fear that video visitation may become a substitute for in person visits.
So, is video visitation the future of prison visits?
How Video Visitation Works
There are two video visitation systems.
The first system requires visitors to still go to the prison. There, they'll enter into a video room, where they can speak with the inmate through a video screen. The inmate and his visitor are never in the same room. This kind of visitation is usually free.
The second system allows visitors to call inmates from anywhere they have computer access. This is meant to help people whose family members are incarcerated in facilities too far away for easy travel. Unlike the in-prison video visitation, visitors must pay for this service. For example, in Arkansas, visitors will have to pay $12.95 for a 30 minute video call plus fees, surcharges, and taxes.
Proponents of video visitation like that the system reduces staffing costs and generate revenue.
Since visitors no longer interact physically with inmates, prisons no longer have to staff guards to accompany inmates from the cell to the visitation room and stand guard. Also, remote video visitation can be a revenue stream for prisons. In Arkansas, the state will earn about $2.59 per video visitation call.
With video visitation, prisons will be able to cut costs from a once free service and earn money at the same time. What's not to love?
Opponents of video visitation fear that prisons will eliminate in-person visitation in favor of video visitation.
While eliminating in person visitation may cut costs, it also disconnects inmates from society. In Texas, elimination of in-person visitation has reportedly led to an increase in assaults and violence in jails. Meanwhile, a Minnesota Department of Corrections report stated that visitation from a family or clergy member reduced recidivism risk by 25 percent.
In Texas, Rep. Eric Johnson introduced a bill that would require jails and prisons allow at least two 20 minute, in-person visitations a week, in addition to any other video visitations.
While video visitation may have its benefits, many argue that it should be a supplement to and not a substitute for in-person visitation.