By Kyla Eastling (CMC ’18)
On August 29th, the California state senate passed SB 1157, otherwise known as the Strengthening Family Connections: In-Person Visitation bill, with bipartisan support. The bill would require jails and prisons within the state to allow in-person visitation from inmates’ families by 2022 at the latest. If signed by Governor Jerry Brown, the bill would make California the largest state in a national trend of counties and states requiring that jails and prisons allow in-person visitation.
At least 11 counties in California have implemented or are in the process of implementing video visitation as a substitute for in-person visitation. Ideally, video visitation is a new method for inmates to keep in contact with their loved ones, in addition to the established methods of in-person visits and phone calls. Video visitation increases the safety of both the inmates and the prison workers and gives more visitation options to the families of inmates which cannot afford the time or money to travel to jails and prisons. Unfortunately, most county jails charge high fees for video visits and ban in-person visitation after the video substitute is established.
Jails and prisons often decide to ban in-person visitations because the companies which provide video-visitation services offer them a significant portion of their profits. This gives jails and prisons an incentive to exclusively allow video visitations. Though some argue these incentives are good for the local governments, there is a strong consensus that bans on in-person visitation harm inmates, their families, and the general community.
As affirmed by the Department of Justice’s study, “Video Visiting in Corrections: Benefits, Limitations, and Implementation Considerations,” it has long been established that visitation from loved ones and family members promotes positive change for inmates. It gives them a sense of hope and maintains the vital connections with the outside world that “promote productive reentry and [contribute] to improved outcomes, in particular, community safety and reduced recidivism rates.” These benefits make in-person visitation ideal for the individual serving time and produce benefits for the community. In person visitation, however, can prove extremely difficult for the visitors who have to front the many costs associated with it.
Many prisons and jails are far away from inmates’ homes, making it difficult to preserve face-to-face contact. Further, the same companies implementing video visitations have also charged for phone calls to inmates at increasing costs. This can be devastating, as illustrated by a study in 2014 which found that in the United states, the high cost of maintaining contact with their incarcerated family members has led more than one in three families (34%) into debt. These figures strongly support the argument that jails and prisons need to make contact with inmates as accessible as possible.
Communities across the country have resisted video visitation programs that prohibit in-person visitation. The most successful video visitation programs serve as a complement, rather than a substitute, to in-person visitation. Some counties like Travis county, Texas have ended all in-person visitation bans. Instead of taking the legislative approach, some states like Virginia and Pennsylvania have elected to partner with nonprofits to facilitate visitation services for family members and loved ones who cannot afford expensive video and call visitation services. If Governor Brown signs SB 1157, California will become the largest state to legally protect in-person visitation, setting a national example of how prison policies can be reformed to better serve communities.