Virtual visits connect inmates and families

December 2, 2011

At some point, Jewell Lewis-Terry accepted that her baby brother, Jerry Wilson, wasn’t coming home anytime soon.

Between rising gas prices and her dislike of invasive prison searches, Lewis-Terry had never made the trip to the Keen Mountain Correctional Center, a Virginia prison close to the Tennessee border, where Wilson is serving a 15-year sentence for a drug conviction.

But this month, Lewis-Terry, 47, saw her brother for the first time in 10 years. And she only had to drive 15 minutes from her Alexandria home to a local church. There, in a sunlit room, she sat in front of a 19-inch television screen and chatted with him as if he’d never left.

“It seemed like he was right there in the room,” Lewis-Terry said.

Through the Video Visitation Program, relatives and friends of inmates are using modern videoconferencing equipment, set up this year at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, to visit loved ones incarcerated in state prisons hundreds of miles away.

The program — run by a Richmond-based nonprofit group, Assisting Families of Inmates, and the Virginia Department of Corrections — is designed to make it easier for inmates to stay connected to their families. That gives them an incentive to behave better behind bars and improves their chances of long-term success on the outside, officials said.

The average cost of an in-person visit, considering the price of gas, food and overnight lodging is about $500, said Fran Bolin, executive director of Assisting Families of Inmates. The fee for an hour-long video chat is $30.

“This is so easy and convenient, and the price is not that bad at all,” Lewis-Terry said.

About 15 visitors and five inmates are enrolled at the Alexandria church, one of four visitation sites at churches in Virginia. Bolin said she hopes more families will join soon. “ We want to serve the most families, friends and inmates impacted by the situation as possible,” she said.

Prisoners typically must be free of infractions for six months to participate. Family and friends can download an application from the Web site of Assisting Families of Inmates or call the office.

Volunteers such as Jerilyn Stanley, a member of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, help keep the program affordable. Stanley’s father died in prison in 1999 while serving a 35-year sentence for manufacturing methamphetamine in California. When she talked with him by phone, she said, “the focus was all on him.” Video visits are more like those that families have over dinner or in the car, she said.

“Seeing someone’s reaction to what you say, it becomes more than words,” she said.

In Lewis-Terry’s case, words turned into dance during her first video chat with Wilson. Her mother, who also attended, playfully scolded her for trying to be the center of attention. “What?” Lewis-Terry replied. “I was just doing a little dance to cheer him up.”

When Lewis-Terry visited Wilson again two weeks later, things turned more serious. Seconds after Wilson picked up the telephone in the small plexiglass-enclosed room at the prison, he asked about his 15-year-old daughter, but Lewis-Terry had not been in touch with the teenager.

“I think the hardest part for him is not being able to speak to his kids,” Lewis-Terry said later.

After asking Lewis-Terry to try calling his daughter again, the siblings, once best childhood friends, teased each other about gaining weight and going gray.

The playful banter makes them feel like a family, Stanley said.

A sense of family is critical to an inmate’s successful reintegration into society, said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a social and economic policy research center in the District.

“The more contact they have with family in prison, the better relationships they have when they’re out,” said La Vigne, who has spent the past 10 years studying the effect of family support on prisoners when they’re released. They also will have better chances of finding jobs and will be less at-risk of committing new crimes, she said.

But while he’s in prison, Wilson said, seeing his family “keeps my mind straight.”

The state launched its first video program in 2006 with the help of the New Jubilee Educational and Family Life Center, a Richmond nonprofit group, and partnered with Assisting Families of Inmates in 2009 to expand the program. The two nonprofit groups facilitate videoconferences with inmates at 10 prisons, including Keen Mountain, Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Red Onion State Prison and the Virginia Correctional Center for Women. Three more churches have signed on as partners.

Lewis-Terry is planning another visit with Wilson before Christmas. Seeing him twice in the past month, she said, has reminded her how much she misses him.

“He’s the missing link to our puzzle,” she said. But, for the hour she talks with him at the church, she said, “It’s like he hasn’t been gone when we see him on the screen. ”

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