LAST YEAR the District’s Department of Corrections replaced in-person visits to the D.C. jail with a video-only visitation policy. Although it was couched as a means of improving the convenience of the visiting process and increasing the frequency of visits, the policy, as we’ve said before, was ultimately a regrettable decision whose only real effect has been to punish prisoners and families.
In the 11 months since its implementation, the allegedly convenient video visitation policy has not, as critics have pointed out, been expanded to the promised seven days per week; family and friends still have to fit their visits into the old eight-hour, five-day-per-week time frame. Visitors complain of poor quality on the jail’s monitors, and some have even experienced cancellations of scheduled appointments because of slightly late arrivals. While it’s true that prisoners are technically allowed more visits than they were before — two 45-minute sessions rather than one per week — the system isn’t working as it should.
Of course, the problems with video visitation are more than logistical. If prisons are to function as correctional facilities, there’s next to no evidence that video visitation provides the human encouragement and maintenance of family ties of in-person contact. The Minnesota Department of Corrections concluded that offenders who were visited in prison were 13 percent less likely to receive another felony conviction and 25 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated for violating parole. Given that about half of the District’s 8,000 prisoners released each year end up in prison within three years of their release, it’s unclear why the jail would turn its back on a visitation policy with documented potential to assist in rehabilitation.
The D.C. Council is considering a measure that would improve the situation. The Video Visitation Modification Act would essentially maintain the basic structure of video visitation instituted last summer but would also allow for in-person visits at a marginal cost of just about $600,000 to the District, which ended the last fiscal year with upwards of $400 million in budget surplus.
After the Baltimore jail scandalin April, where guards colluded with a gang of prisoners to facilitate contraband transactions, critics of the District’s proposed measure have understandably cited security as a major concern. However, there’s little evidence that in-person visits are the direct cause of inmate-on-guard assaults. While stopping the flow of contraband is a key concern, so is treating prisoners as humanely and compassionately as possible. There’s no reason why the former should rule out the latter.