Screening out the family



Video visitation of jail inmates, embraced last month by the Hancock County Commission, is insidious and inhumane.

The video visitation industry, a for-profit initiative, has swept up state prisons and county jails nationwide over the past several years. The appeal of the product is undeniable. The company’s sales pitch notes that jails and, in particular, prisons often are located far from the families of the incarcerated, making face-to-face visitation a hardship. Also, conventional visitation ties up personnel and can serve as a pipeline for those who would smuggle contraband to inmates.

Throw in the brief and frequently inconvenient times when visits are allowed and an enticing case can be made for replacing face-to-face with Facetime or Skype visitation.

But a computer screen visit is not the same as a personal visit, especially a contact visit with hugs and hand holding. An incarcerated person already is, by definition, an outcast. Reducing contact with family and loved ones to a flickering image on a pixilated screen is just one more deprivation, one more step away from reintegration with society.

And video visitation comes at a price — $6 for a 20-minute call. The incarcerated and their families are often among the poorest individuals, so that cost may not be as modest as it might appear. Nor are these families very likely to have the smartphones and computer equipment necessary to download the app and make the call.

That said, if video visitation was offered in addition to face-to-face visits, families and inmates stand to gain. But the contract the commissioners signed requires the elimination of personal visits.

As a recent Letter to the Editor observed: “Allowing a private corporation to enter the public domain to interfere with family connectedness is unconscionable not only to the family but to the offender whose recovery is at stake. That offender needs to be emotionally healthy when released back into the community.”

Contraband, staffing, personnel costs and the fact that the county gets a share of the take ($1,100 a month) make the case for video visitation enticing. No wonder the industry is growing and signing up correctional institutions across the country — they’ve built a better mousetrap.

Problem is, we’re talking about people, not mice.