USA: 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.
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.

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