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Tiffany Burns tries to talk to her boyfriend Chrishon Brown, who is locked up in Jefferson Parish jail.
Tiffany Burns tries to talk to her boyfriend Chrishon Brown, who is locked up in Jefferson Parish jail. Photograph: Ben Depp
Tiffany Burns tries to talk to her boyfriend Chrishon Brown, who is locked up in Jefferson Parish jail. Photograph: Ben Depp

The end of American prison visits: jails end face-to-face contact – and families suffer

It’s been described as ‘Skype for the jailed’ and is being sold as safer and more convenient. But it begs the question: are in-person visits a human right?

One sunny day in October, at the Jefferson Parish correctional center just across the river from downtown New Orleans, Tiffany Burns, 34, was visiting her boyfriend.

The pair had been dating for almost two years and were still giggly in love when a late July knock on the door sent him away. Scooped up by the police after being accused of robbing a suburban bank at gunpoint, Chrishon Brown, 37, was sent to the correctional center while his case worked its way through the court.

A new, unwelcome chapter of their relationship began, with Brown using all his jail funds to call Tiffany, and Tiffany visiting as often as she could.

It was a long drive from her home in the Metairie suburb west of New Orleans, and could sometimes take about an hour each way with the traffic near downtown, but Burns was happy to do it. “When I visit, sometimes I forget about the glass and it feels like we are together again.”

She felt that way during her visit on 12 October, right up until the moment she walked out the jail door and was handed a pamphlet.

“Visit an inmate from anywhere!” exclaimed the heading. A photo of a smiling blond woman using a tablet with her daughter was featured on the next page.

“From now on, no more visits,” said the jail guard, as she shut the door behind Tiffany. “If you want to see him, read that.”

“I didn’t realize that would be my last visit,” Tiffany later said.

$12.99 per call. In-person visits used to be free

Tiffany Burns waits for her boyfriend Chrishon Brown to call from prison.
Tiffany Burns waits for her boyfriend Chrishon Brown to call from prison. Photograph: Ben Depp

Under the new system, in-person visits are no longer allowed. Instead, all visits now must be done by video, either from a smartphone, computer, or at an offsite location.

The pamphlet, published by Securus Technology, makes using a video feed to talk to your loved one seem appealing. It says:

“Do you want to see your loved one more often? Stop missing out on:

• Watching your favorite TV show.

• Singing Happy Birthday.

• Reading a bedtime story ... Never miss another moment.”

Under the new system, each video visit made from home costs $12.99 for 20 minutes. In-person visits used to be free.

This shift also raises a legal question: is in-person visitation an inmate’s legal right?

Video technology run by Securus and other companies is now used in hundreds of correctional facilities across the country.

Although data is hard to come by, Lucius Couloute, a research associate at the Prison Policy Initiative, might have the best guess. By scraping information from news articles, social media, and Google alerts, he estimates at least 600 US facilities now have video visitation programs in place. (Securus did not respond to repeated requests for that information.)

Gary York, a retired Florida prison inspector who writes about video visitation, says his experience supports those findings. He says that over the past five years, most jails in his state have turned to using only video visitation and stopped in-person visitation.

Indeed, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s data, 74% of US correctional facilities that implement video calling end up either reducing in-person visits, or eliminating them altogether.

The brochure for the new video call system. Jefferson Parish jail has just stopped in person visits.
The brochure for the new video call system. Jefferson Parish jail has just stopped in person visits. Photograph: Ben Depp/Ben Depp for The Guardian

But why halt in-person visitation?

Security concerns, say the program’s supporters. They point to the conveniences of video, a kind of Skype for the jailed, as a way to combat a nagging security issue: contraband. York says that contraband – drugs, weapons, and more – can be introduced even in no-contact facilities where inmates are separated from visitors by glass. “I’m not going sugarcoat it and say it’s only the visitors that do it,” says York. “Inmate orderlies and officers might be picking up a bag of marijuana that a visitor leaves in the trashcan and getting paid off to deliver it to the inmate. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.”

Another reason is the reallocation of jail personnel. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe LoPinto was quoted in a Times-Picayune article as arguing that the new system allows his office to “allocate resources where we think they’re needed, on the streets”. In-person visitation, he said, requires twice as many officers, and York agrees. (LoPinto declined to comment for this story).

Critics, however, say that potential gains are far outweighed by the costs.

‘The impact is going to be so real’

Norris Henderson spent nearly 28 years in prison for murder in Louisiana. Today, he is the founder and executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender, a not-for-profit group that advocates for inmates’ rights. He strongly believes that stopping in-person visitations is a move in the wrong direction.

“We should be moving toward more human contact and people connecting with other people, not less. When you move away from that,” warns Henderson, “it is easy to dehumanize.”

Léon Digard, from the Vera Institute of Justice, says that his research shows the opposite happening, with “in-person visits increasing outcomes both pre- and post-release”. Couloute additionally points to research published in the Criminal Justice Policy Review that show that in-person visits decrease recidivism.

Instead, both Digard and Couloute recommend this technology be used only as a supplement to traditional methods of visitation.

Behind the security issue lies an even more profound challenge: the emotional and psychological cost of taking away in-person visits. Advocates argue that seeing a person face-to-face, even if it’s through six inches of glass, is critical to the emotional health of prisoners.

Sister Alison McCrary is an attorney and executive director for the National Police Accountability Project. She runs the New Orleans Community-Police Mediation Program. She regularly spends her weekends offering spiritual guidance to those who have been incarcerated, particularly those on death row.

“Visitation is so important to maintaining a prisoner’s faith. So important. I can’t believe they would simply take that away,” she says, in a saddened voice. “The impact is going to be so real.”

Users pay almost $13 for a 20 minute video call.
Users pay almost $13 for a 20 minute video call. Photograph: Ben Depp

Are visitations a human right?

Ultimately, the substitution of video visitation for in-person visits raises a legal question that applies to correctional facilities everywhere: is it a human right to receive in-person visitation?

Internationally, multiple legal instruments indicate that it is. UN rules call for the allowance of visitors, while the European Prison Rules emphasize that while all forms of visitation may be monitored, maximum contact is the underlying goal: “Prisoners shall be allowed to communicate as often as possible by letter, telephone or other forms of communication with their families, other persons and representatives of outside organisations and to receive visits from these persons.”

Those rules, however, are legally non-binding for US purposes. In 2003, the US supreme court unanimously decided that visitation restrictions with a “rational relation” to prison management do not violate the constitutional right of association.

Michele Deitch, a scholar on prisons at the University of Texas, notes that across the country, some state and local governments have adopted legislation that addresses the question of the legality of video visitation in lieu of in-person visitation.

In Texas, for example, a recent state law requires that in-person visitation be maintained in jails, and California has passed similar legislation. Although the American Bar Association and the American Correctional Association have published guidelines that say video visitation should be a supplement and not a substitute for in-person visits, the supreme court has not yet weighed in on the video visitation question. Without a national legal framework, the decision belongs to local authorities, with their own rationale, be it contraband, security, or something else.

For Henderson, the former prisoner, the conversation “goes deeper than this issue of contraband. This is about money. I shouldn’t have to pay you to come see my child.”

The prison phone system is a $1.2bn-a-year industry, dominated by big players like Securus. Securus has stated that it serves over 1.2 million prisoners across North America, and the company employs at least 736 people, according to its Bloomberg listing.

Private companies point to their services as a potential new source of revenue for overburdened counties, with the facility receiving commissions per call. Although neither Securus nor the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office would provide a breakdown of where the $12.99 per 20 minutes goes, Coulette says that “typically they receive only a 10 to 20% commission on the call”.

‘Companies shouldn’t be getting rich off inmates’ backs’

Almost everyone who has studied video visitation also mentions one other thing: video visitation is glitchy.

Often, in spite of the price, the technology doesn’t work; the sound or the image doesn’t come through, or the calls cut off in the middle. The glitches can make that $12.99 price tag seem even higher.

The counterargument to this criticism is the fact that in Jefferson Parish, for example, one 20-minute video call at an “offsite video visitation center” is free per week.

To find out more, I took that drive over the bridge across the Mississippi to Gretna, where the Jefferson Parish jail is located. Inside, the Securus logo is prominently displayed on posters. The guards tell me they think the new system will be an improvement – “it’s better because you can do a video visit from home now” – but since it is so new, they can’t say for sure.

They suggest I check out the new “Video Visitation Center”, located about a 10 minute drive down the freeway. For those without access to a smartphone or a computer, the new visitation center is their only option.

There, an old elementary school building has been converted into the center. Inside, three guards are gathered and laughing around a cellphone behind a glass wall, but outside the parking lot is empty. No one is visiting.

I stop by the Jefferson Parish public defenders office. Attorney Andrew Duffy, a public defender in Jefferson Parish, already has some concerns. I hand him the flyer and he types in the Securus video visitation web address. As the page pulls up, he rears back his head and raises his eyebrows. “Yeah, see look at this,” he says, gesturing to a page busy with menus and small-font options. “Grandma’s gone.”

He sees the introduction of technology not as a guaranteed convenience, but as a potential barrier. On top of the 20-minute price tag, the video calls require an updated tablet, computer or smartphone.

‘I couldn’t even hear what she was saying’

Tiffany Burns tries to talk to her boyfriend. Their first attempt with the new system was not successful.
Tiffany Burns tries to talk to her boyfriend. Their first attempt with the new system was not successful. Photograph: Ben Depp for The Guardian

To understand the impact that all this is having on the loved ones of inmates, I drove out to Metairie, to the home of Tiffany Burns.

Two weeks after her last in-person visit, Burns sits on her bed in her mother’s apartment.

Inside, Burns’s mother has set the table for Thanksgiving dinner, decorating it with orange and yellow crepe fall leaves. It’s a much friendlier environment than the one at the jail or the video visitation center.

In the bedroom, Burns is sitting crosslegged on the bed, nervously fussing with the cheap earphones she just rushed out to buy.

“OK, so he is supposed to call in eight minutes I guess,” she says, staring at her phone, which blinks 6.52pm.

This is her third attempt to video chat with Brown. The first time, she did not know she needed to schedule the call far ahead of time, and the second time, all the slots were filled for the days she was off work. Now, with her slot scheduled and her earphones in, she’s wondering if it will all work out.

Finally, she sees a call coming through.

Her face lights up and then slowly fades as she realizes Brown can’t hear her. She fiddles with her headphones, waves, tries gesturing to him, but ultimately, he never can hear her voice. The two end up simply giggling at the screen image of each other for the remainder of the time.

Later, I speak with Brown by phone and he explains that he believes he was only the third inmate to try to use the video program at the Jefferson Parish jail, and that the other two also said it didn’t work properly.

“We had to pay money for something that didn’t work,” he complains. “I couldn’t even hear what she was saying, and I couldn’t really see her.”

Brown is particularly upset that the in-person visitations are being halted. “How you gonna stop people’s families from coming to see them? That’s messed up. I thought that was a privilege we got here.”

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