As a movement has taken hold to get California's jails and prisons to operate more efficiently while releasing inmates who are better able to successfully reenter society, there have been occasional steps in the opposite direction. One of the most destructive has been a trend to ban in-person visits by family and friends.
Some county jails have gone as far as eliminating visitation rooms, where higher-security inmates speak on phones to their visitors while seeing them, face-to-face, through glass barriers. Some have ended visits in which lower-security inmates can hug their children, parents and spouses. Plans have moved forward for new jails that don't even include space for such visits, except by the inmates' attorneys.
Offered in place of inmate visits is video conferencing. Sheriffs argue that video provides fewer security risks and fewer opportunities for contraband, like drugs, weapons and cellphones, to be passed to inmates. And besides, some argue, video is cheaper.
It certainly is — for the jailers. For inmates, though, it's not a matter of simply going to the jail library and making a free call on a service like Skype. Jails enter into contracts with private video-conferencing providers, which charge families, friends and others by the minute for video "visits" with inmates.
The program is reminiscent of the scandalous arrangements jails enter into with telephone companies that charge exorbitant rates for calls from inmates to home.
Obviously, jails are highly restricted areas in which rules that don't apply to people on the outside properly limit the actions of inmates. Calls and visits are restricted and monitored, as they should be. Incarceration is meant to punish the prisoner as well as protect society. It is not meant to be particularly pleasant.
But it also shouldn't be unnecessarily cruel, and it certainly shouldn't be stupid. Mountains of evidence and decades of experience demonstrate that inmate contact with family and friends — direct, face-to-face contact — helps to repair and retain the ties that are crucial to the inmates' successful return to normal life once their terms are completed. Visits help curb inmate discipline problems and jail violence. They are correlated with lower recidivism and better odds of post-incarceration employment. Eliminating that contact is foolish. Charging for "visits" that can take place only by video is unconscionable.
Video technology itself is not the problem. Some jails and prisons are too remote for families to readily visit their locked-up loved ones, and video provides what could in theory be a low-cost option. But it should not be the exclusive option.
Besides, at some facilities, families must still travel to the jail even for a video visit. They are in the same building as the inmates but are prevented from seeing them in person. Equipment malfunctions sometimes prevent even the video visit from taking place.
Last year, a bill to require all California prisons and jails to allow in-person visits made its way to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, only to be vetoed. Brown explained in his message that a statutory mandate on local jail operations would be too inflexible.
Still, he expressed concern about the trend toward eliminating in-person jail visits. He directed the Board of State and Community Corrections — the panel that allocates state money for county jail construction and programming — to come up with a solution.
It didn't. Now, instead of a new stand-alone bill, the Legislature is seeking to impose the same mandate as part of the state budget process. A handful of jails would be exempt from the requirement for five years, after which they would have to accommodate in-person visits.
We sympathize with the governor for first wanting to let the corrections board do its job. Failing that, he conceivably might argue that a bill, after all, is a better vehicle than the budget process. But, been there, done that. California has been too clueless, for too long, about criminal justice and is finally beginning to wise up. Jail policies that ban in-person visits are a foolish step backward, and the Legislature is right to step in.