Family Matters: Video “Visits” for People in Prison

Among the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States today, more than half are parents. The stats are staggering: one in 28 American children has a parent behind bars. Earlier this week, the New York Times published perspectives on a new development of video-facilitated prison “visits” behind bars. What are the pros and cons of these visits? How do you feel about them? We share some of our own thoughts on the subject here.

The Challenge and Importance of Sustaining Family Ties During Incarceration

A recurring theme in this blog, and in our work, is that reentry is a long-term process, and thus preparation for it must begin far before the day of release. For a person to transition successfully from prison to community life, he or she needs social, emotional, and material support on an ongoing basis. Family connections are a vital source of this critical support. For many people in prison, connections with loved ones serve as powerful motivators to improve themselves and rebuild their lives on release. But keeping these connections alive can be extremely difficult, for both families on the outside and people behind bars. Many people are housed hundreds of miles from their families — and, in California’s overcrowded system, transferred to out-of-state facilities. People have no right to be housed near family. As a result, families undertake costly and arduous journeys in order to see loved ones.

For families who make can make the trip, visits and “hellos” aren’t what they might hope or envision. Spouses are often prevented from expressing ordinary forms of physical affection– hugging, touching, holding hands, because of glass barriers and institutional rules. Children, too, are prevented from touching, kissing, and hugging a parent. Instead, they have to communicate with their incarcerated parent in a stark and intimidating correctional context. Very often, children have trouble connecting with their incarcerated parent, feel intimidated by the correctional institution, and dread these visits, instead of looking forward to the chance to see mom or dad.

For families who can’t afford the time or money to visit, relationships with incarcerated loved ones suffer and often deteriorate. Families on the outside feel the collective stresses of social stigma in their communities and physical separation from their loved ones. Many incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people that Root & Rebound works with report that, while their families visited once in a while early on, they stopped getting visits because of the huge emotional and financial strains on family, and resentment built up on both sides. When these people get out, they have lost ties with family and have no where to look for support.

But social science shows us that we need family visits to happen as often and easily as possible: when family visits occur more regularly, incarcerated parents are more likely to succeed and less likely to reoffend upon release. Even more, their children do better socially, emotionally, and academically. As human beings, we all know that being mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers makes us better people, more grounded, and better equipped to problem solve and deal with emotional challenges. And yet fewer than half of incarcerated parents receive visits from their children.

The Promise and Pitfalls of Video Visits

How can the increasing use of video visits in prison improve this situation? We believe that they have the power to do good for families, to strengthen ties and connections, and to ensure that when people get out, they have emotional support. Yet they can also be exploited and overused by prisons and jails.

Some clear pros of video visits are that they help incarcerated people sustain relationships with loved ones who, for medical or financial or other reasons, cannot easily visit. They keep communications going. This is an incredible tool for families who are far away from their loved one, and for the incarcerated people desperate to see their children and spouses more regularly.Yet no video can replace the feel of a hug from your mother or father, or the opportunity to play with your child, and it would be a shame if prisons ever replace the option of real, live in person visits for video conferencing only. Yet some video-conferencig companies, eager to make a bigger profit, are pushing prisons and jails to completely replace in-person visits with video visits, and are charging huge rates–$1 per minute or more. Therefore, like any tool in this world, video-conferencing can be used for good– it can be an incredible tie that binds families who would otherwise disconnect over time. But, as with any tool that is being offered by big corporations for disenfranchised communities with little means and little voice, we as advocates must be sure that video-conferencing is not used to exploit the most vulnerable people who need family and connection to survive.

These are just some of our thoughts. Please share yours hear in the comments section, and read more thoughts on the topic at Room for Debate: Visiting Prisoners, Without Visiting Prison.

— The R&R Team

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