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A Virtual Visit to a Relative in Jail

Even the best visitation policies can’t make up for the broken bonds and fragmented communities that incarceration produces.

Chicago—”Are you tired of taking the time to drive to the jail and wait in long lines for your visit?” asks the website of Securus, a private company that manages phones in jails and prisons throughout the United States. “Visit your loved one from the comfort of your home using a computer.”

Computer-based video visitation, a service that Securus provides for a fee, can indeed be a helpful option: It allows people in jail or prison to see loved ones who can’t visit in person for whatever reason — the long distance, disability, illness, a busy schedule or responsibilities at home. However, what Securus doesn’t advertise is that, in many cases, you’re not allowed to visit any other way.

In county jails, when video visitation is introduced, in-person visitation is typically banned. (Securus’s contracts with jails have sometimes mandated this ban, though recently the company announced that its contracts would no longer include the requirement.) Jails are embracing the practice, in part because video visitation is less time-consuming and requires fewer staff members than in-person visits. More than 13 percent of local jails in the United States now use video visitation, and at most of those jails, in-person visits have been abolished, according to research by the Prison Policy Initiative.

When my sister began serving a sentence at the Lake County jail outside Chicago in July, I experienced this practice firsthand. When she first called me from the jail, I planned to drive over immediately to see her. My sister had been incarcerated before, and I’d always relied on regular visits to help show my love and support. But I discovered that in-person visits were not allowed. All “visits” were to be conducted via video, through Securus’s system.

My options were to schedule a video visit at the facility (sitting in a booth alone) or at home. I scheduled an at-home visit, paying $5 for the privilege. Many jails charge more, but even $5, at regular intervals, can be a burden to families of incarcerated people, who are often poor. A report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that one-third of families of incarcerated people went into debt to cover the cost of phone calls and visits, a burden that fell heaviest on women of color.

Moreover, at Lake County and a number of other jails that allow visits only by video, visits must be booked 24 hours ahead of time, which can be an impediment for families struggling to juggle busy schedules with the obligations that come with having an adult (often the primary wage earner) missing from a household.

In my attempt to visit with my sister by video, my visitation privileges were initially denied because of a blurry ID photo: Securus requires that you take a picture of your ID card with your webcam, an endeavor that’s harder than it sounds. This delayed me by a couple of days.

Eventually, I was able to schedule a visitation. The day before, I spent an hour researching and downloading the necessary system requirements for my computer. For people with an older or otherwise incompatible computer or less knowledge of technology — not an unlikely scenario, given the demographics of families of incarcerated people — those requirements could prevent a visit.

My preparation did me no good. I signed on at the required time … and waited. The minutes ticked by as a box telling me my “inmate” hadn’t yet arrived hovered on my screen (although my sister later confirmed she’d been present). After 10 minutes, I called Securus’s tech support. There are no extensions with video visitation; after the half-hour slot you’ve paid for has passed, your connection is cut. I sat on the phone with a helpless tech person, crying. I knew my sister would be devastated. I was worried she’d think I hadn’t shown up.

After a half-hour, the box disappeared. My visit was over. Despite several follow-up calls to tech support and emails to Securus, I never found out why it hadn’t worked.

The second time I tried a video visit, I succeeded in connecting. I was relieved when my sister’s face popped up on my screen. But our video conversation was glitchy: Her face was dim and her words were delayed and didn’t sync with the movements of her mouth. For much of the visit I saw only half her head, and neither of us could look each other in the eye, no matter how much I fiddled with my setup.

These problems weren’t unique to my experience: Technological issues are a common complaint with such visits. When the camera flickered off at the half-hour mark, I felt our conversation had hardly begun.

The practical benefits of face-to-face visits for people in jail are well established: They help them maintain a connection to the outside world and prepare them for life after release, reducing recidivism. But more fundamentally, incarcerated people are human beings, and denying them personal contact with those they love is yet another indignity of the prison system.

Even the best visitation policies can’t make up for the broken bonds and fragmented communities that incarceration produces. Even the longest, most well-accommodated in-person visit can’t substitute for living in the world. But at least we can allow people in jail to see their loved ones face to face.