Ending In-person Visits for Video Conferencing Hurts Families, Especially Children

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Brian-Goldstein-HeadshotHow would you react if suddenly hospitals simply replaced in-person patient visitation with video conferencing? Hospital administrators might justify this decision by saying that hospitals are scary places, so it‘s best to protect family members, especially young people, from being traumatized.

The idea that a bureaucracy could so severely restrict a family’s right to see their loved ones might seem unthinkable. However, for the 2.3 million people who were incarcerated in the United States, 744,600 of whom were in jails as of 2014, it could become a reality.

Moreover, there are approximately 5 million children who have an incarcerated parent, and in-person visitation space is essential for these young people to maintain space for family connections and well-being.

In California, the state’s jails have increasingly moved to adopt video visitation in lieu of in-person visitation. Recent estimates put California’s jail population at approximately 74,000. As such, removing in-person visitation has the potential to affect one of the state’s most vulnerable populations: the children of these incarcerated parents.

Video visitation should not replace more meaningful, in-person contact visits. Prison Policy Initiative’s (PPI) “Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails” explains how video visitation not only removes physical interaction, which is particularly crucial to young children, but the visibility of the service itself is often spotty. The design of the video consoles also do not allow for eye contact, which interferes with human ability to create meaningful social connections.

Additionally, there is often no privacy for those using video consoles, which inhibits the ability to freely express oneself. Video visitation is, in every way, inferior to real human interaction, and even detrimental to family relationships — particularly for children.

Despite these limitations, California’s county jails have moved away from in-person visitation space; newer facilities in particular are opting for video-only visits. PPI notes that video visitation has been adopted by more than 43 states, with many facilities subsequently eliminating in-person space. Moreover, the service is very expensive and puts another burden on families of incarcerated people.

[Related: Telestory Unites New York Children — Briefly — with Incarcerated Parents]

Securing in-person visiting opportunities for families and young people is essential. This year, California state Sen. Holly Mitchell introduced SB 1157 to clarify that jails must continue to make these spaces available for family and youth. SB 1157 recognizes the value of strengthening family and community connections. Mitchell has partnered with a broad coalition including, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Prison Law Office, Project WHAT!, the Women’s Policy Institute and others.

As SB 1157 has been introduced in the legislature, California’s Board of State and Community Corrections, the regulatory body responsible for developing jail regulations, convened a series of committee meetings to discuss facility standards, including the issue of jail visitation space. Yet all 13 committee members whose job was to review standards on visitation space were sheriffs. These members did not want to require in-person visitation space, given the “potential negative impacts of in-person visits, such as exposing children to the inside of a jail …”

How would family members, incarcerated persons, young people, mental health professionals or community representatives respond? Unfortunately, this committee failed to include such individuals, just as many systems leaders and policymakers nationally have adopted video visitation without fully considering the long-term ramifications of their policies or consulting with those most impacted. Youth voices remain marginalized, especially those who have had a parent incarcerated.

Research shows why contact visits matter and how they can help mitigate the collateral consequences of incarceration. Yet systems across California and the country find themselves racing to adopt policies that place an undue burden on young people who struggle with their parent’s incarceration.

By eliminating in-person space, systems are multiplying the isolation and disruption that these youth already experience. When law enforcement and video visitation companies talk about the promise of innovation, we must ask what price high-needs youth and their families will pay.

Brian Goldstein is the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice's director of policy and development.

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Report Finds That Reasonable Video Visitation Policies in Prisons Benefit Children