Virginia cuts out face-to-face visits on death row

Dena Potter
The Associated Press
Saturday, August 21, 2010; 2:25 PM

Terri Steinberg used to take solace in knowing that her son on Virginia's death row would get to hug a family member every other month. Soon, even putting her hand up to his on the glass partition during visits will be a thing of the past.

Beginning Sept. 1, the state Department of Corrections will become only the second in the nation to require all death row visits be done via video conference. Corrections officials say the new policy will be less intrusive on visitors, less labor-intensive on staff and could lead to expanded visitation opportunities.

The prison system banned contact visits for death row inmates three years ago. Moving to video visits is just a "cruel and unnecessary" way to penalize those who already are facing the state's ultimate punishment, said Steinberg, whose 29-year-old son Justin Wolfe is on death row for a murder-for-hire scheme.

"It's an assault to the families as well as to the inmates," Steinberg said.

Of the nation's 35 death penalty states, Kansas was the first to require that visits with death-row inmates be conducted by video conference. A dozen states allow contact visits, while 21 others require visitors to be separated by a glass partition. In Ohio, visitors are separated by glass, but there is a slot that allows inmates and visitors to hold hands.

Advocates question the move away from contact visits.

"The fact that these people are on death row and are very likely going to lose their life at some point, to then punish them by taking away the few positive things in their life is just terrible policy and very inhumane," said Claudia Whitman, director of the National Death Row Assistance Network for Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants.

But corrections officials in Virginia and Kansas say using video conferencing improves security and efficiency. As in Kansas, Virginia's policy also will apply to inmates who are held in segregation for disobeying prison rules.

The technology frees up staff who otherwise would be needed to search and escort both visitors and inmates and then monitor the visits, said Bill Miskell, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

In Virginia, when a death-row inmate has a visitor, movement in much of the facility has to be shut down so the inmate can be escorted to the visitation area, said Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor. When the policy changes, inmates will remain in the death row unit. The visits also would be recorded.

Kansas started using video visitation seven years ago and is now in the third generation of the technology. At first, there were "significant issues" with the quality of the video and audio, but that has vastly improved, Miskell said.

Officials in both states say the policy is about security, not about trying to save money.

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