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Jails are embracing video-only visits, but some experts say screens aren't enough

A boy uses a video screen to talk with his mother, who was held at the Campbell County Jail in Jacksboro, Tenn.
David Goldman
A boy uses a video screen to talk with his mother, who was held at the Campbell County Jail in Jacksboro, Tenn.

The holidays are all about trying to spend time with family — a hard thing to do when a family member is behind bars. And it's even harder if that person is held in a local jail, where there's been a growing trend away from in-person visits.

"There's no more eye-to-eye, face-to-face visitation," says Maj. David McFadyen, the head of administrative operations for the sheriff's office in North Carolina's Craven County. Since the pandemic, the county jail has switched to a remote video system for family visits. It's not free; families pay the video service contractor $8 per 20 minutes. But McFadyen says it's easier for everyone involved.

"The inmates themselves don't have to leave the cell block. So it takes less personnel to have to bring them to another area where there was the face-to-face visitation," he says. And because family members no longer come to the jail, they don't have to be screened for contraband.

Prisons across the U.S. have mostly returned to allowing in-person visits since COVID. But in jails — which house people for shorter periods, usually before trial — there's been less interest in reopening doors to family, according to Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative.

"In Michigan, for example, we recently obtained some data about the availability of in-person visits, and found that the vast majority have eliminated them," Bertram says.

There are no national statistics tracking the visiting rules for the thousands of locally run jails, but she says the trend seems clear.

"Not only are jails cutting back on in-person visits, they are building new facilities to exclude that possibility entirely," Bertram says.

Jails that have done this say video allows inmates more time to visit with family — even outside traditional jail visiting hours. But is video time the same as in-person time? Nneka Jones Tapia says no. She's a psychologist with the nonprofit Chicago Beyond who once ran the massive Cook County jail. When she was a little girl, her father was incarcerated.

"I recall back in the '80s visting my father and being able to bring food," Tapia says. "Just being able to have more normalized experiences with my dad helped us to maintain our bond."

That was a minimum-security prison; such personal contact is far less likely in jails, especially when they're short-staffed and security is a concern. But Tapia says it doesn't have to be that way. She has encouraged jails to set up visitation systems that welcome families — such as one she helped create at Cook County jail.

"They no longer see their incarcerated loved one in handcuffs," says Tapia. "They walk into a visitation space that is more colorful. It has bright lighting. It has games and activities so that the incarcerated parents, the care-takers who have brought the children and the children can engage in family play."

Every inmate at Cook County jail is entitled to one "contact visitation" per week. Tapia says this might involve extra effort, but that's made up for by the positive outcomes for everyone — including the corrections officers, who tend to volunteer for this more upbeat duty.

While child-oriented visiting programs have existed at prisons — especially women's prisons — Tapia says it's time for jails to welcome families, too, because their populations aren't as transient as they used to be.

"Jails were traditionally thought of as facilities that housed people for brief amounts of time," she says. "That is in fact not the case. Jails are holding people for sometimes years while they are awaiting trial."

According to federal estimates, the average stay in jail has risen slightly, to about 32 days per year in 2022 from about 24 days in 2015.

Julie Poehlmann at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studies families of incarcerated people. She says research has shown the value of in-person visits, both to the incarcerated person and family members. But she says a lot depends on the quality of the visit. In jails, she says, "in-person visit" often means the family is still separated by a glass partition or in-house video.

"Usually there's a row of video monitors, their special [incarcerated] person is on the screen, but only one [family member] can hear at a time because there's only one handheld [audio] device," Poehlmann says. "So in the observational work that my team has done, we found that children spend more than half the time watching other people's visits because it's hard to connect that way."

That's why she's not completely opposed to video visits. "They're not a bad supplement," Poehlmann says, "especially if they're done remotely, so a kid and a family can stay home or be in a comfortable place." This time of year, for instance, she says remote video might allow a child to show an incarcerated parent the Christmas tree.

"If [video] is offered for free, I think that that can help," she says. "But I don't think it should ever be a replacement" for in-person visits.

At least one state, Massachusetts, agrees: In 2018, it passed a law saying video visits are OK, as long inmates are still guaranteed the in-person option.

But nationally, the trend is the other way. In Craven County, Maj. McFadyen sees the shift to video as a reflection of what's going on outside the jail.

"Our whole society and socialization has changed now, where incredibly, many people do communicate when they're not incarcerated [by] Facetiming with their smartphones or their computers," he says.

And in a jail, McFadyen says video is just better — especially for kids. He thinks visiting a jail in person is just too traumatic for them.

"You certainly don't want a young child to be hugging a family member and their time expires and you have to pull them out of their arms," he says. "In a bad situation, [remote video] is as good of an option as we can have at this time."

He says with video, kids can spend even more time connecting with a jailed parent, and in the same way they're increasingly connecting with the rest of their world — through a screen.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.