July 26, 2012

ON JULY 25 the District’s Department of Corrections (DOC) officially replaced in-person visits to the D.C. jail with video visitation. Billed as a means of “redesigning the visitation process” to double the number of daily visits and “better accommodate visitors who work during the week” with longer hours, the decision ultimately means that those with loved ones behind bars will be able to see them only on a screen.

Unsurprisingly, the DOC has had much to say about the alleged conveniences that this new policy is expected to bring. For instance, when visitors arrive at the Video Visitation Center — housed in the former D.C. General Hospital complex adjacent to the jail — they will no longer be subject to invasive security pat-downs or property searches as they were when they entered the jail. They also apparently won’t have to worry about interrupted visits, which would occasionally happen during lockdowns and other security concerns at the jail. In contrast with other prison systems with similar visitation policies, the cost in the District is free, and the only requirement for visitors is to schedule in advance a visitation time between Wednesday and Sunday, a time frame that is soon to be expanded to all seven days.

Although it’s possible that video visitation might enable more visitors to interact with prisoners, the DOC has yet to articulate a substantive reason why this policy change was necessary. While there may be benefits to video visitation, there are also significant drawbacks. In-person visits provide the obvious benefit of strengthening family ties in times that can threaten those bonds, and they do much to preserve inmates’ morale. On a national level, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is clear on this point: Federal prisons are supposed to encourage “visiting by family, friends, and community groups to maintain the morale of the inmate and to develop closer relationships between the inmate and family members or others in the community.” There is no compelling reason why the D.C. jail’s municipal status should allow it to abide by any other set of rules.

Ultimately, the option of in-person visitation should be restored, at least as an alternative to video visits as it is in states like Virginia. In the meantime, the D.C. jail owes the public an explanation for heaping an even greater burden on those who already suffer enough.