Jails in California will use tech to abolish visitation, unless the Governor acts now


Making sure people in jail are visited by their loved ones is one of the most reliable ways of keeping that person out of jail in the future. Just one visit reduces a person's chance to commit a new felony by 13%.

But in jails across California, families can't visit inmates at all. The only option is a new system called video visitation, a type of FaceTime or video Skype favored by private prison-communications contractors. Video visits are glitchy, expensive and on the rise across the country — 46 states have incorporated video visitation into prisons so far.

"People are trying to change what facility their loved ones are held at because of the visiting conditions," Zoe Willmott, program manager of the Essie Justice Group, told Mic in an interview. "The burden of driving to the facility just to see their family just to see them through fuzzy screens is too high."

David J. Phillip/AP

But all that could change. Next week, California could pass a bill that would make sure inmates are guaranteed in-person visits. It wouldn't ban video visitation — both kinds of visits would be used side-by-side. The bill's cleared the state Assembly and state Senate, and just needs the signature of Gov. Edmund Brown on Sept. 30.

Video visitation isn't dehumanizing everywhere it's used: There's a case for video calls as a way to keep families in touch with loved ones who are incarcerated hundreds of miles from their only support network. In Brooklyn, New York City, librarians are setting up a dozen video visitation centers built specifically to make children and families comfortable while visiting loved ones from a distance.

The problem is in the jails where video visits have wholly replaced in-person visitation. In Utah and Oklahoma, some facilities have stopped offering in-person visitation, so the only way you could visit someone in these jails is through a screen, and at a steep price. This was true in Texas before legislators in Austin teamed up to pass HB 549, a unique bill that sanctifies in-person visits by guaranteeing at least two free 20-minute visits a week.

Tri Vo/Mic

But visitation isn't a constitutional right, it's a privilege — that's the defense sometimes used by local sheriffs in defense of video-only visitation. Without bills like the one passed in Texas, there's nothing to stop a county or sheriff's office from doing away with in-person visits through private-sector partnerships with prison telecommunications companies.

"The burden of driving to the facility just to see their family just to see them through fuzzy screens is too high." —Zoe Willmott

With Brown's signature, California could be the second state to achieve that protection — two down, 48 to go. Willmott's been in meetings with the governor's office (which declined to comment for this story), and aside from the pushback from sheriffs who see video-only visitation as a cost-cutting opportunity, she said she doesn't see why the bill wouldn't pass.

"It's good, clean policy," Willmott said. "This isn't about banning video. We don't think it shouldn't be an option for people. To me, that seems simple and easy, and I hope that Governor Brown feels the same way."