Criminal justice has a long history of having a fetish for technology. Prison cells that open remotely, electronic monitoring anklets, speed limits enforced by radar, police body cameras—technological advancements are often used to facilitate the administration of justice.
Video visitation—reuniting inmates and their loved ones in cyberspace—is one of the latest additions to that list. Proponents argue that it removes many of the barriers to visitation, reduces staffing costs, and provides a particularly antiseptic visitation “room” for children of the incarcerated. Detractors argue that it replaces vital face-to-face contact, creates an opportunity to exploit families financially, and relies on platforms that cannot deliver consistent quality connections. And yet perhaps the most fundamental concern of all is that it provides a luxury to criminals who do not deserve it.
Video visits take place in more than 500 jails and prisons across 43 states and the District of Columbia. Most occur in jails, which might be surprising, given that they are more numerous and more centrally located than state prisons, whose inmates can be several hours away from their communities. Jail administrators find video visits attractive because they reduce staffing costs while generating revenue—visitors have to pay anywhere from 20 cents to a dollar per minute, with a percentage of that sometimes coming back to the agency. (The prison telephone industry, which charges high rates to speak to prisoners, is only now being regulated.) Among the satisfied customers is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has called video visits “a win for everyone involved.”
Not everyone wins if revenue-generating video visitation replaces the critical (and free) in-person contact of regular visits, however. There is a role for video visitation, but it’s as a supplement to, not replacement for, regular in-person visits. Most inmates are not visited. Their potential visitors may be too poor, too ill, too far away, too busy, or too intimidated to cross the jail or prison threshold. Video visitation could change that—and in the process improve the way we punish those convicted of a crime.
Most don’t want to improve that experience. We tend to think of inmates as “other”—human beings who are somehow different from “us” and undeserving of any basic right or privilege. Permitting virtual visitation with family and friends smacks of coddling “them”—akin to providing them an Xbox or a pizza party. But they may not be as different from us as we would like to think. My colleagues and I are engaged in research that examines the impact of in-person visitation on inmate well-being and behavior in Arizona. (I’m a professor at Arizona State University; ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) We have interviewed inmates who are certainly immersed in and consider themselves defined by a criminal lifestyle. But we have also interviewed inmates who were fashion consultants, lawyers, registered nurses, electricians, teachers, dental assistants, research analysts, and phlebotomists. The visitors they identified are romantic partners, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, neighbors, co-workers, and friends. It’s hard to imagine that any of these visitors wanted to become the mother or brother of an inmate. It’s much easier to imagine that they used to be “us.” It’s a finer line than we’d probably like to acknowledge.
It may be convenient to separate ourselves from offenders and to desire the worst for them. However, you only need to look at recidivism statistics to realize that our current approach is not working. More than three-quarters of released prisoners will be rearrested, and more than half will be reincarcerated within five years. Many worry that prisons are too cushy, but anyone who has spent time around a prison knows the devastating monotony of prison life. The truth is that nastier prison conditions may make for nastier inmates. In short, by advocating for the harsh treatment of inmates, people may be advocating for the future victimization of others.
When we incarcerate someone, we are not just affecting his or her individual life. We are also affecting the lives of those who are connected to the offender. Visitation may be critical to maintaining, mending, and even developing these relationships. Several of the inmates we interviewed told us that visitation was the first time in a long while that they were able to interact with a loved one while sober. The 231 inmates described their relationships with 700 visitors—441 of these relationships (63 percent) were said to be better than they were before incarceration. (Thirty percent stayed the same, and only 7 percent got worse.) If an offender is made worse while imprisoned, it affects his ability to one day be a better husband, father, or employee. So we are not just punishing the offender.
Our interviews reinforced the potential of video visitation to supplement regular visits. One inmate had her privileges reduced to only noncontact visits, and she was distraught that her family was unwilling to make the two-hour drive from Tucson to Goodyear simply to talk on a phone behind glass. Video visitation could be a temporary solution—more than just a phone call but less than a regular visit. Another inmate felt sorry for the women who didn’t get visits. “If you didn’t have support prior to being in here, you won’t find it here,” she told us. She described these women as “hopeless.” Video visitation could find ways to provide visits for the unvisited, which can help them be productive when they return to society.
And nearly all offenders do come back to society. More than 90 percent of those incarcerated will eventually make their way back to our communities. So why would we want to treat them in a way that may make them more anti-social, more aggressive, and more criminal? I hesitate to compare humans to animals, but I often think about how we approach the rehabilitation of aggressive dogs. We remove these dogs from society, do our best to reduce their anti-social and aggressive tendencies, and then reintroduce them to society and hope they can be a loved pet in a “forever home.” We do not cage the dogs with other aggressive dogs with minimal basic living conditions and then reintroduce them to society. The rehabilitation of offenders is much more complicated than that, but the basic idea of “don’t make them worse” still applies.
In suggesting better treatment of inmates, I don’t want to diminish the very real consequences that may come with victimization. A lost loved one at the hands of another is enough for anyone to desire cruel and inhumane treatment in the name of vengeance. But it’s critical not to let the relatively small proportion of incarcerated individuals who have engaged in brutal and repeated violence define the inmate population as a whole.
An increase in the use of video visitation might not significantly reduce crime. But it may cause us to rethink how we punish those convicted of a crime. We could treat inmates more humanely—not merely for their benefit, but for the benefit of their friends, their family, and the general public. Visitation may provide an opportunity to improve the lives of more than just the inmate, and video visitation in particular may allow for innovative approaches to relationship counseling, family reunification, and re-entry planning. In the process, though, we can’t allow the technology to remove time and space in a manner that further distances “us” from “them.” Because when they then return to us—and most will—what might we reasonably expect of them?
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.