A growing number of jails in the United States are changing the way inmates meet with visitors, adopting video visitations, instead of in-person meetings.
It’s estimated that hundreds of jails in nearly two dozen states across the U.S. have video teleconference systems for inmate visits or are planning on installing them.
In Washington, DC the Department of Corrections has eliminated in-person visits completely.
“I view implementation of video visitation as another step toward improving operational efficiency within the DC Jail,” said Department of Corrections Director Thomas Faust. “I’m also confident that there will be marked improvements in facility security, with diminished opportunities for bringing all forms of contraband in to the facility,” he said.
To participate in a video chat with an inmate, visitors can book appointments online or by phone. The video visits take place at a new facility located near the jail with dozens of kiosks equipped with video conference stations.
The video chats are free in DC and have doubled the number of visits allowed per day from 200 to 400, but not everyone is happy with the switch.
On Tuesday, a local blog called DCist reported opposition from both former prisoners and human rights advocates, who say the DC government never took into account the value in-person visits have on reintegrating prisoners back into society once they’re released.
Former inmates like Ricky Bryant, who served 32 years in prison for his part in a robbery and homicide, told DCist in-person visits helped him prepare for post-prison life.
“It might be Plexiglas, but its way more personal than looking at someone on a screen,” said Bryant, referring to the former visitation process where inmates talked to visitors over the phone with a shatterproof glass wall separating them. “You can’t personalize someone on a TV screen,” he said.
In an informational video posted on YouTube the DC Department of Corrections says making the switch to video means shorter waiting times for visitors and they avoid the sometimes unpleasant experience of going through jail security.
It also saves the city more than $400,000 a year in staffing costs DCist reports.
The New York Department of corrections is testing out teleconferencing in at least two of its prisons, though it stopped short of eliminating in-person visits all together.
“We see it as a complement, if you will, to our visitation process,” Peter Cutler, spokesman for the New York Department of Corrections, told the New York Daily News, who also reported the state’s plan to quadruple the size of the program over the next several months.
In Westchester County, New York, the prison system is using a service called TeleCorrections. For a fee, ranging from $15-$30, visitors can video chat with inmates using personal webcams from anywhere that has a Wi-Fi connection.
Back in Washington, despite the objections to the elimination of in-person visits, the program remains in place with plans to expand the services offered.
On its website, the Department of Corrections says it is looking into visitation systems through computers housed at local libraries and community centers. It is also exploring the option of in-home access similar to the system being used in New York.