When you’re behind bars, “there’s something psychologically uplifting about knowing someone is coming to visit you,” Jorge Renaud explained.
Renaud is an organizer with Grassroots Leadership and Texas Advocates for Justice who spoke with me by phone from Austin, Texas. He told me that unless you’ve been incarcerated, you can’t understand the emotional impact of a visit from a friend or loved one. His voice vibrated with emotion as he recalled those desperately needed visits, his tone expressing more than words could say.
This crucial connection with the outside world is endangered around the country, as more and more prisons and jails install video visitation systems. While the technology theoretically offers a new way to connect with prisoners—for those who can afford it—jails across the nation are also doing away with in-person visitation entirely, in favor of relying exclusively on these video visitations.
Correctional institutions began installing the technology about a decade ago, but alarmed prison reform activists only recently succeeded in getting the attention of lawmakers and the media.
Renaud spent time in a Texas prison and, more recently, served a few months in jail for a DUI conviction, so he experienced both forms of visitation firsthand. “It’s just not the same when you have it on the camera,” he says.
While jail officials sometimes cite safety concerns, Renaud’s research suggests video visitation has less to do with safer jails and more to do with profits for prison technology corporations like Securus.
Many studies suggest visitation reduces the stress of incarcerationand causes a measurable reduction in recidivism. A 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that prisoners who received even one visit from a loved one were 13% less likely to commit new crimes and 25% less likely to violate the terms of their parole. Activists and prisoners alike are convinced that video visitation, which reduces human connection to a tiny screen, puts these benefits at risk.
Fortunately, in Austin and elsewhere in the country, activists for prisoners’ rights are beginning to fight back—and starting to win.