Future Tense

Prisons Are Using Video Visitation as Punishment

While the technology has its uses in the criminal justice system, it’s no substitute for in-person contact.

A cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma.
In-person visits that provide physical contact can reduce depression and make life in prison easier to cope with. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Recently, a feel-good video circulated on Twitter. “Orleans Parish Inmates Get Surprise Visit From Family for Good Behavior” showed incarcerated fathers holding their newborns for the first time, hugging their spouses, and making funny faces with their kids. People were crying. The joy in the room is practically palpable.

But less obvious is the reason why this sweet moment is so special. For these fathers, visitation via video call has become the norm—or more specifically, in-person visitation is now a privilege, and like any privilege, it can be given only to those with “exemplary behavior.” The conditions for exemplary behavior would likely vary from facility to facility, but usually, this will mean no shots, or disciplinary write-ups, for a certain period of time; no major incidents, such as fights or disturbances; and no contraband. Exemplary behavior may also mean proactive participation in religious services, classes, and apprenticeship programs. In prison, this is difficult to achieve, so in places like Orleans Parish, video visitation becomes tantamount to a punishment.

Communication from behind modern prison walls has always been difficult. Phone time is restricted (and expensive), in-person visitation hours are limited, and prisons are often located in places that take hours to reach in a car and may be unreachable via public transit. It’s a counterproductive system, because staying in touch with the world outside prison results in much better outcomes both in prison (by reducing altercations and infractions) and after release: People with strong ties to their communities are more likely to have stable housing and employment prospects, and less likely to return to prison.

Video visitation services like the ones used in Orleans Parish have been steadily spreading through the criminal justice system, leading some to suggest that this might be a cheaper, easier way to encourage people in prison to keep connected to loved ones. But cautionary tales from as far back as the 1970s show that it could instead make prison a much more difficult experience for those inside by limiting their emotional connections with people on the outside, exposing them to serious privacy risks, and costing them a great deal of money.

Video conferencing (which is different from video visitation) in the criminal justice system dates back to 1972, when Illinois first used the tool for those in prison to virtually attend bail hearings. Since then, video conferencing has been picked up by almost every state and is now the standard option for certain legal proceedings. The National Center for State Courts has proclaimed this a net positive, as the use of video eliminates the cost associated with moving people between prison and court, reduces overcrowding in jails that would normally hold people pre-sentencing, and ensures that those in rural areas can still make court proceedings on time. But video conferencing also strains attorney-client communication and can prevent judges from seeing defendants as real people, allowing them to make harsher decisions. One study found that in Illinois, the implementation of video conferencing caused an average bail increase of 51 percent.

As of 2014 (the most recent year for which we have data), more than 500 facilities in 43 states were using video visitation to some degree. The implementation of video calling services looks different in every location, but most jails (where those awaiting trial and sentencing, as well as those who have short sentences, are housed) are eliminating in-person visitation after installing video and most state prisons (for those already sentenced) are continuing to offer in-person visits as a supplement to video. It’s hard to determine exactly how many places have joined Orleans Parish in using video as tantamount to punishment, but it’s safe to assume it isn’t the only one, due to the prevalence of punitively revoking visitation.

Video isn’t all bad, of course. When used as part of a broader toolkit to connect families to each other, lawyers to clients, and incarcerated people to resources outside, it can be a positive addition. It can give those inside a chance to see experiences that they would otherwise miss, like graduations and birthdays.

When video visitation is the only option, it typically is available in one of two forms—on a rented tablet or in a visitation room with rows of computers. Securus and GTL, the largest distributors of telecommunications services for people in prison, have rented a combined total of about 520,000 tablets. Video calls using these companies’ services range from $5 to $12.99 per 20-minute session, which is in line with other providers in the space.

Video visitation, in addition to being expensive, is also costly for relationships. A pamphlet for video services that was distributed to loved ones in Orleans Parish prison said, “Visit an inmate from anywhere!” But a study of video visitation in Travis County, Texas, showed that when they went virtual, the number of “visits” dropped dramatically, and families saw less of one another. Visiting an inmate from anywhere didn’t mean much to them.

One possible reason that video visitation is so unpopular among families is the lack of privacy. While no conversation (excluding attorney-client communications) is entirely private in prison, phone calls are recorded and often used against defendants in court. Video also allows whoever is monitoring to see the home on the other side of the line, so family members of incarcerated people can feel surveilled. There hasn’t been a case of video calls being used against defendants in court yet, but it seems inevitable. Securus, the largest prison telecommunications provider and distributor of most of those 520,000 tablets, was already caught tracking the locations of people receiving calls from those in prison and is facing a potential lawsuit from the ACLU because of it—which wouldn’t be its first. By supplanting in-person visitation with video visitation, the punishment can be felt by both the incarcerated people and their families.

The advantages of face-to-face contact—a warm hug from your kid, a kiss from your spouse, or a handshake from your dad—can make it hard to find a substitute for in-person visitation. We all have a deep psychological need for familial connection, and human connection even more broadly. We also have a need for physical contact, which there isn’t a lot of opportunity for in prison—and contrary to the famous “No touching!” line from Arrested Development, most prisons and jails (with the exception of maximum security) do allow for touching at the beginning and end of a visit. In-person visits that provide this kind of contact reduce depression and make life in prison easier to cope with. Encouraging incarcerated people to form and maintain healthy connections during their time in prison is crucial to their success, and strong bonds simply can’t be maintained through technology alone.

In addition to doing research on tech in criminal justice, I volunteer with a program in prison that helps incarcerated fathers stay connected with their children. When we sit down around a table in the prison’s career resource center, we often talk about how difficult it is to make and maintain connections over the phone and through emails. This is exactly why these dads look forward to the yearly summer camp that brings their kids to visit for a full week. They work on art projects together and perform skits and poetry, but mainly, they just catch up. On the last day of camp, all the kids do a slow dance with their dads. The staff cries, the dads cry, the kids cry.

When I watch the video from Orleans Parish, it’s obvious those dads who have been denied a chance to see their family face to face for so long are experiencing many of the same emotions. Videos aren’t a substitute for seeing someone in person. They are a good way of making you feel like you’re there when you have to miss something, but they aren’t a permanent substitute for real connection.