Connecting loved ones while separated helps to mitigate the harms of incarceration.
When Jennifer Love was in prison, talking to loved ones was a lifeline. “It gave me a moment to feel human,” she said. “It meant everything to me.”
Now that she is free, Love helps families who want to connect to their incarcerated loved ones using video call software that is available in a growing number of prisons. Recently, she assisted a family trying to connect a grandmother in hospice with her grandson, who is incarcerated in Texas. “I can’t imagine what she was feeling,” Love said. “It was so important for her to see his face.”
Video calls offer an opportunity for families to maintain and strengthen their ties to each other while under the great strain of separation imposed by incarceration. A 2015 study of state prison visits found that the majority of people in prison are held 100 miles away from their homes. Given this reality, along with the connection between poverty and incarceration, it’s no surprise that families of incarcerated people are often unable to afford transportation to visit their loved ones in person. Video conferencing can provide an option for people who live far away from their incarcerated loved ones and cannot visit them frequently, as well as for those who might not feel comfortable going through prison and jail security searches that are often difficult or degrading.
The potential for connection
Like many policies and practices in jails and prisons across the United States, video call offerings vary widely from facility to facility. In the best cases, the calls are free and offered as a supplement to in-person visits. In May 2023, for example, the New York City Department of Corrections started offering free televisits on Fridays. In contrast, although incarcerated people in some Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities are allowed free one-hour remote video visitations once a month, remote visits for other facilities in the state can cost as much as $10.
But alarmingly, in far too many prisons and jails, video calls have supplanted in-person visits with loved ones altogether. For example, video visits are currently the only way for people to see their loved ones held in Knox County Jail in Tennessee and Benton County Jail in Arkansas. Family and friends of people incarcerated in Jefferson Paris Correctional Center in Louisiana are forced to pay up to $12.99 per 20-minute video visit—with no other way to see their loved ones. These costs add to the financial burden that families of incarcerated people shoulder. People who want a free visit with their loved ones in Jefferson Parish Correctional Center are forced to drive to a visitation center just to video conference with their loved one, as in-person visits are not allowed at all.
The technology is also far from perfect. People experiencing poverty are likely to struggle to afford high-speed internet and smartphones or computers with the bandwidth for video conferencing. Malfunctioning equipment, scheduling problems, poor connections, glitchy software, audio issues, and other barriers can make video conferencing difficult and frustrating for families. “It’s confusing why it’s so bad when I’m paying so much money for it,” told Rachel Grimes—who was paying $16 an hour to video call her boyfriend in Charlotte County Jail in Florida—to The Marshall Project. “But then it’s the corrections system. Everything is bad while costing a lot of money.”
Anyone who has used video conferencing knows that seeing a loved on a computer or phone screen is not the same as seeing them in person. “When you look at the person on the screen, you cannot look them in the eye,” Rebecca Parr told Ars Technica after seeing a grainy video feed of her nephew at the Knox County Jail in Tennessee. “I have experienced prison visitation a lot in my life. . . . This was the most dehumanizing and impersonal that I’ve ever experienced.”
Policies that replace in-person visits with video visitation and force families to pay to see their loved ones go against decades of evidence that show how isolating people under incarceration from their families and communities is counterproductive.
Research shows that consistent family connection during a prison sentence makes a person less likely to return to prison. At least 95 percent of people in state prisons will one day be released and rejoin our communities. Ensuring that they can maintain healthy relationships while incarcerated is critical to their successful reentry into society. The U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections has stated that “traditional, in-person visiting is a best practice that should continue in all correctional settings when possible.”
Closing the distance
Thankfully, policies like this have not gone unnoticed, and some lawmakers and elected officials are taking action. In 2018, Massachusetts prohibited jails from replacing in-person visits with video calls. And, after video visits replaced in-person visits in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Sheriff Gary McFadden made restoring in-person jail visits part of his 2018 election campaign platform.
“Allowing our residents to stay connected to family and loved ones through in-person visits improves public safety,” said McFadden after he had been elected and his campaign promise had been fulfilled. “This simple step alone has been shown to significantly lower the chances that a person will commit another crime after they get out. It also reduces the chance a person will commit an infraction inside the jail which could adversely impact their release. In addition, it improves mental health outcomes and strengthens family units and community ties.”
For the well-being of incarcerated people, their families, and society, it is critical to provide support to restore and maintain these family connections. More than five million children have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. Video visitation, as a frequent supplement to in-person visitation, can help children stay connected to their parents and mitigate some of the harm they experience while separated by incarceration. Helping families in this way is an investment in the kinds of human connections that build true public safety, but should be an addition to—not a replacement for—invaluable in-person visitation.
Thanks to her experience of connection while incarcerated, Love believes that video calls should be free, or at least affordable. “Hearing my family’s voices made me feel like I was a regular person,” she said. “Like I was a human being, and I was not forgotten.”