When Ciara Jackson visited her boyfriend at the D.C. jail three weeks ago, her 5-year-old daughter Talia reached out and touched the glass partition separating her from her father. He pressed back from the other side.
“It seemed real,” said Jackson, 20.
That intimacy, though restricted, is now gone. Jackson and other visitors must chat by video, with cameras aimed at detainees in the jail and at their loved ones a few hundred yards away in a building attached to the former D.C. General Hospital Complex in Southeast.
Prisoner rights groups complain that the video visits — a growing trend at jails across the country — deprive the detained of interacting with flesh-and-blood people and contradict a long-held philosophy that family visits are vital to rehabilitation and morale.
“This practice is not exactly being well received,” said Philip Fornaci, director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “It’s further alienating people on all sides.
“If it were a supplement to personal visits, that would be one thing,” Fornaci said. “But it’s not, and already people who are visitors to the jail are humiliated and treated poorly. To me, this is just another sign of the disrespect.”
Supporters argue that the change, which took effect Wednesday, saves money, eliminates the passing of contraband and increases visitation hours. They say it’s safer for visitors and eases tension behind jailhouse walls.
“We don’t have to move inmates,” said Thomas P. Hoey, the acting deputy director of the District’s Department of Corrections, noting it eases security risks among the jail’s 1,800 prisoners.
“For visitors, it’s more comfortable here than in the jail,” Hoey said. “Everyone on both sides is more quiet.”
And unlike going into the jail, visitors to the District’s new Video Visitation Center don’t have to be searched and have their criminal records checked.
“We don’t have to pat down a 4-year-old,” Hoey said.
The next step, Hoey said, is to let people talk with their jailed family members from libraries, community centers and eventually from the comfort of their own homes, the same way one uses Skype to chat with a relative far away.
Jail officials said the switch has enabled them to move six corrections officers to enforcement duties instead of supervising daily visits. The video system, they said, costs about $420,000 less than face-to-face visits and can accommodate 400 visits a day, more than twice as many as in-jail visits.
Hoey said that as many as 200 jails across the country now do visits by video.
“It’s a growing trend anywhere I’ve been,” said Peter Perroncello, the superintendent of jail operations in Norfolk County, Mass., with 670,000 residents just outside Boston. “If anyone can do it, they’ll do it.”
Video visits are most often used by local jails, which hold transient populations of people awaiting trial or those convicted of misdemeanors with sentences of a year or less. Some prisons, where convicted inmates can be held for decades and even life, use video as well, mostly for those who can’t travel great distances. Most keep the personal visits as an option.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons encourages face-to-face visits for its general population. In some low-security facilities, even a brief embrace is allowed.
“It’s an important part of the program to maintain strong family ties,” federal prison spokesman Edmond Ross said. “We encourage it.”
Virginia allows visitors to go to churches and community centers to log in. It helps in the cases of inmates hundreds of miles away from their families.
Fornaci said the D.C. jail is unique because there is no prison in Washington. Convicted felons are put into the federal system and shipped all over the country, making visits difficult for families with little money.
“People in the District have a very limited window to see their family,” Fornaci said. “Jail might be the only chance they get.”
The District’s video center has 54 monitors lined up in an air-conditioned room. Prisoners on the other end are in common areas attached to their floors.
During a visit Friday, only a handful of people were chatting with prison friends or relatives, and the atmosphere was relaxed. Mothers held up babies to the video camera for their jailed fathers to see. Still, not everyone was pleased.
Jackson, who was scheduled to have a video visit Wednesday, had that visit canceled when a fight — which she saw on her monitor — broke out at the jail. She was angry that she didn’t get to talk to her boyfriend and that her daughter could see the melee in the background.
“That was inappropriate,” Jackson said. “Before, in the jail, you were closer and had more privacy. This, I don’t know. This just doesn’t seem right.”
But Shalonda Poole, 25, thought it less of a hassle to visit the video room than the jail. “I liked it,” she said after speaking with her nephew, who had been arrested three weeks ago during a fight. “It was hot and scary in the jail. I think it’s better by phone.”
Mark Seidman agreed. The 65-year-old teacher at the Georgetown Law Center was visiting a former student who got into trouble. “The old way, you were in a booth, looking at the guy through glass, talking on a phone that didn’t allow you to hear,” Seidman said. “You were constantly interrupted with people yelling in the background.”