Prison Visits – When Technology is Not the Answer
In an article published in the Times Picayune, the newspaper reported on the decision of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff to stop all forms of face-to-face visits for offenders and their families in favor of using video calls which began October, 2017. Citing a cost savings by utilizing less personnel and spending fewer tax payer dollars Sheriff Lopinto states, “This system gives (inmates) a lot more time with their family, and it also frees up assets for the taxpayers of Jefferson Parish.” Unfortunately for the families they will be charged $12.99 per 20 minute blocks of time to visit via video conferencing which can be done by coming to a video room set up at an offsite location from the jail or utilizing their Smart Phones. Prior to instituting the video conferencing, families could visit for free for two hour blocks, but even that only allowed them to speak through a glass partition on a telephone.
As a Certified Parent Educator I spent over 10 years providing parenting programs to incarcerated populations. In that time, I came to realize that while all the other life skills and cognitive behavioral therapy programs that were offered helped the population to change their mindset, it was the parenting programs that more strongly motivated the incarcerated parent to change their behavior. The value of child-parent attachment has been found to be the strongest indicator of child welfare and is a protective factor for the family as a whole. Quite frankly, the only way to build that efficacious bond is for the parent and child to have physical contact with one another, and in the case of incarcerated parents, it is even more important. A large body of research has clearly indicated that offenders who are able to interact and maintain contact with their families are less likely to have behavior issues while incarcerated, less likely to recidivate as well upon release and are more apt to obtain employment sooner.
The unfortunate reality in Louisiana is that most of the local jails that are utilized to house well over half of the incarcerated population in the state were not built with contact visits in mind. For 93,000 children in Louisiana, at least one of their parents is incarcerated. Due to a switch from face-to-face to video calls, the majority of these children no longer have access to meaningful time with their incarcerated parent.
It is sad that some correctional facilities have chosen to take away what little time Louisiana children could get with their incarcerated parent. The unintended and potential consequences of this decision include an uptick in behavioral issues within jails and the damage done to the families involved. As Sheriff Craig Webre of Lafourche Parish, who is a leader in Louisiana in reforming our criminal justice system has stated regarding the use of video visiting in lieu of face to face visits, “Sometimes you have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and recognize the reality of human interaction, what it means to look someone in the eye and to support them during a difficult period in their life,” Webre said. “Despite the horrible things someone has done, you can’t take away the bond.” May others heed Sheriff Webre’s message.