Preserving the Right to In-Person Visitation - Women's Foundation California
illustration: Giulietta Wertz-Best

As more correctional and detention facilities begin to implement video visitation, they are also eliminating the option to in-person visitation. This transition has significant impacts on both the individual who is incarcerated and their loved ones. The Women’s Foundation of California’s criminal justice fellows in our Women’s Policy Institute are working to reverse this dangerous trend with Senate Bill 1157.

When Le’Char Toki brings three of her children—ages four, seven and ten–to visit their dad at the Claybank Jail in Solano County, they are met with a video screen.

Staring into the little peephole camera and unable to all fit into the frame, her children squirm in their seats waiting for the screen to unfreeze, incapable of making eye contact with their dad.

This experience is becoming increasingly common as more correctional facilities move away from in-person visitation and toward video visitation. At least five California county facilities have completely eliminated in-person visitation in their transition to video. Many more are following suit.

“It matters to me to get back in-person visits because for my children, it would give them a connection with their father,” Toki said. “A camera doesn’t mean anything. The TV is a disconnect,” she continued. “When it’s through glass, we can see the seriousness, the smiles, the laughter.”

The ability to see someone in person is critical for children to establish a secure attachment to their incarcerated family member; a connection that cannot be replicated via video said the U.S. Department of Justice and National Institute of Corrections in their 2015 report.

Fostering family stability in this way is also crucial to the wellbeing of the individuals who are incarcerated. According to the report, visitation reduces disciplinary infractions and violence during incarceration, lowers recidivism, facilitates re-entry and increases the chance of employment post-release — effectively creating “a lifeline in the lives of incarcerated men and women.”

Sixty-seven percent of formerly incarcerated individuals turned to family members for support in finding housing after release and 58 percent lived with family members when they returned to the community, according to a report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

“So it’s not these systems of re-entry, it’s not probation departments, it’s not parole offices, it’s their families who are helping them when they come home and for that reason they need to really be able to have meaningful contact,” said Azadeh Zohrabi, Ella Baker Center national campaigner.

Video visitation has the ability to further these family connections formed by in-person visitation as a viable alternative when personal circumstances do not allow for face-to-face. However, instead of complementing in-person visitation, video is replacing it: 74 percent of county jails across the country that implemented video visitation ended up eliminating in-person visitation all together.

The Women’s Foundation of California’s criminal justice fellows in our Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) are working to reverse and stop this dangerous trend in its tracks. They have teamed up with Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) to sponsor and author Senate Bill 1157.

The bill, which has made it to the Governor’s desk, would require local correctional, detention, and juvenile facilities with video visitation to also provide in-person visitation.

“Part of what the bill does is break through the façade of video visitation only being for the benefit of family members and public safety,” said Zoe Willmott, a member of the WPI team working on the bill and Essie Justice Group program manager. “The truth is that corrections policies are moving in a direction of punishment, of causing more harm.”

Proponents of video visitation-only policies have argued that this form of contact is more cost-effective for families. However, the push for video visitation has been driven largely by the same technology vendors who charged exorbitant prison phone call rates and in November 2015 were labeled by the FCC as “government-sponsored monopoly, charging rates that far exceed their costs.”

History has thus repeated itself, with video calls costing families an average of one dollar per minute (therefore $60/hr) to maintain contact. Video visitation also requires that families have access to technology that supports the software, Internet connection and the ability to read in English.

“Just because a Sheriff’s department stands to make money off of people doesn’t mean it’s worth doing. That cost falls on families,” Willmott said.

Free video calls are only provided on-site, requiring families to expend the same costs of transportation and childcare to visit the facility, only to face a screen. A recent op-ed published in the Sacramento Bee also discusses the importance of this bill.

“Almost a third of the families that we interviewed went into debt to pay for visits and most of those people who were responsible for those costs were women,” said Zohrabi, who is also a member of the WPI team working on the bill. “If this trend were to continue, it would be a huge burden on families and it would cost a lot of money to have to reverse.”

And the trend is certainly continuing. In California alone, nine counties (Lake, Orange, Riverside, San Benito, Shasta, Stanislaus, Tehama, Tulare and Ventura) currently have plans to renovate or build new facilities with no space for in-person visitation.

“SB 1157 is so urgently needed because there are all these jails that are being built in California,” Willmott said. “So it’s not the kind of thing that can wait five years. It has to happen now.”

Zohrabi and Willmott hope that if SB 1157 were to be passed and coupled with correct implementation, it would lay the groundwork for requiring in-person visitation at both county and state prisons across the nation. Texas is the only state so far to have passed similar legislation.

“This bill fits in well to the movement around dignity, rights and justice for incarcerated people and their loved ones,” she continued. If passed, “one of the things it means is that lots and lots of family members will be able to see their loved ones for the first time in years.”

Governor Brown will decide whether to sign or veto SB 1157 anytime between now and September 30. To learn more about how you can support this bill, visit the SB 1157 Facebook page. For more information about the Women’s Policy Institute, click here.

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