The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Contributor SEPT. 29, 2016, NY Times
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.