Understanding the pros and cons of video visitation systems in corrections

Research reflects a reduction in recidivism with inmates receiving regular visitation from family, loved ones, clergy and mentors


In an age of expanding correctional industry technology, including electronic ankle monitors, remote sensor controlled facility doors and handheld cell phone detection devices, another advanced solution has emerged – video visitation. 

Video visitation has been implemented in more than 500 jails and prisons in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Many correctional facilities have recently offered video visitation in the form of a new Skype-like venue. The visits can easily be scheduled online by the visitor. The visitor can also choose to receive automated notifications or other options, which hold the potential of increasing facility revenue.

How video visitation works

In this photo taken on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, inmate Jesse Cole is shown on a television screen as his son William, 4, center, reaches to touch the screen while his mother, Edna, holds 8-month-old Jesse James, during a video visitation with at the Fort Bend County Jail, in Richmond, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
In this photo taken on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, inmate Jesse Cole is shown on a television screen as his son William, 4, center, reaches to touch the screen while his mother, Edna, holds 8-month-old Jesse James, during a video visitation with at the Fort Bend County Jail, in Richmond, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

This method of visitation is simple to operate. A visitor typically makes an online appointment for the visit with their incarcerated loved one in advance and pays any required fees. The inmate is advised of the visitation appointment, and he or she is told to be at a corresponding video terminal or institution issued tablet device and logged in on time. Once the visitor and inmate are logged into the website, the visit can begin.

Benefits

Correctional administrators in favor of video visitation believe that it reduce the infiltration of contraband and enables a facility to expand visiting hours while reducing staffing costs. With video visitation capabilities, it is no longer necessary for correctional staff to escort the inmate to visitation rooms, which ultimately reduces time and workload for personnel. Further, there are no requirements for personnel to be available for in-person visitor check-in or registration. More visits can be conducted and visiting hours can be increased without the requirement of additional correction staff.

With video visitation technology, personal visits can be conducted from the comfort of the family home and children won’t be exposed to the harsh environment of a jail or prison. Also, video visitation offers corrections personnel the ability to monitor multiple conversations and gather criminal evidence without the interruption of in-person visitation.

Video visitation also enables visitors to connect with their incarcerated loved ones from the comfort of a visitation center which houses several monitors. Other location options include a different correctional facility, a court house, a community center or a library. Video visitation is also mobile friendly. The same visitation platform can be utilized for inmates to connect with their public defenders, attorneys, rehabilitation specialists and clergy.

Disadvantages

On the other hand, despite the many positives, video visitation has some considerable drawbacks.

For the visiting family, video visitation fees can be expensive and the medium feels impersonal. Advocates for through-the-glass visitation and in-person visitation options feel that video visitation is less intimate – with a severe lack of eye contact between the speaking individuals. Video visitation makes it more difficult for families to evaluate the status and well-being of the incarcerated due to the poor quality and pixilated images on the screen.

Additionally, video visitation doesn’t account for any visitation privacy. Most of the screens are located in terminals in the middle of correctional facility day-rooms or on institutionally issued tablets used in the housing areas. Neither option provides for visitation privacy which can completely alter the dynamics of a visit between an incarcerated individual and their family or loved ones.

The cameras on the inmate visiting terminals are not mounted where the outside viewing party can see the inmate’s eyes. Complaints from families repeatedly remark of the impersonal nature of visits because they cannot look their incarcerated loved one in the eyes.

Unfortunately, the systems are also said to be fragile, prone to breakdown and expensive to repair.

Effects on recidivism    

Research reflects a reduction in recidivism with inmates receiving regular visitation from family, loved ones, clergy and mentors. Studies also illustrate a reduction in the likelihood of repeated incarceration for those who are able to maintain contact with family, friends and other loved ones while in jail. Overall, results clearly illustrate that offenders with supportive social networks were less likely to re-offend.

Due diligence before procurement

If video visitation is an option for a correctional facility, thoroughly researching vendors is a necessity. Several video terminal vendors offer packaged options bundled with correctional phone plans for jail facilities. Since no two correctional facilities are built the same, deciphering facility needs and budget must be identified and made part of a custom designed plan. Modernizing technology systems for a correctional institution can only benefit inmates, personnel and administration.

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