If you have a loved one behind bars, there are more ways than ever to stay connected: letters, phone calls, and just in the past couple of years, a new way: a video service that lets inmates and families communicate through a screen; along the lines of Skype. But there’s a catch: when jails add video visitation, they’re usually getting rid of in person visits. There's one place in New Hampshire, Cheshire County Jail, where that’s happening.
Since her son Tommy went to jail, Dawn Herbert tries to see him as much as she can. He’s incarcerated less than a ten-minute drive from her house in Keene. But he might as well be a lot further.
"He’s in that building, and I can’t get to him," she says.
Dawn’s visits probably don’t look like what you’re picturing—sitting across a table, or a pane of plexiglass.
When Dawn visits her son Tommy, she has to sit in a windowless booth just past the jail’s front door, hold a phone to her ear, and wait for him to show up on a little screen.
On this day Dawn can hear Tommy, but most times she says she can’t. The sound cuts out or the screen freezes up.
And this whole time, Tommy—who’s awaiting trial for possession of a weapon and other charges relating to his heroin addiction—is a few hundred feet away on his cell block, sitting at another little screen.
"I can’t stand it, because he’s on the screen in front of me, and I can’t touch him," Dawn says.
Video visitation can be a great way for families who are far away, as a supplement to real visits. But there are also a lot of people in Dawn’s position, who can and want to do an in person visit, but just aren’t allowed.
Because when Cheshire County Jail signed its contract with Securus, the company that installed the technology, it agreed to ban all in-person visits between inmates and families. And this arrangement is becoming more common in jails and prisons across the country: video visits come in, in person visits disappear.
Richard Van Wickler is superintendent of Cheshire County Jail in Keene. He signed the jail’s contract with Securus, and the county paid $30,000 to install the video system.
"Video visitation? I mean it’s like another technological advancement of our society that no one’s really used to," Van Wickler says. "But then we began to see the advantages of it."
One advantage? Less worry about contraband coming in, which means fewer inmate strip searches, which means less staff time.
And here’s another advantage: jails stand to make a profit. Come do a video visit at the jail, it’s free, but do it from your home computer, that can run $1 minute. Securus promised the jail a 20 percent cut of the thousands of dollars raised by those fees. But that cut only came to about $2,500 for the jail last year. The rest goes to Securus.
And while Superintendent Van Wickler says he’s sympathetic to what’s being lost here, its part of the social contract of being incarcerated.
"When I go to rest at night or when I retire from this, whenever I do," he says, "I know that I did what I think was the right thing. When one violates the law and has to serve time in a public institution - one of the liberties that one could lose is the opportunity to hug a love one. And you know what? That's a difficult sanction. That's hard time."
But anyone looking to argue that banning in person visits is one step beyond hard time has to be able to point at a legal definition of a prison visit." And those laws came out well before video visitation did, says Bernadette Rabuy of the Prison Policy Initiative.
"They refer to how many visits need to be provided in but they don’t define what a visit might be," Rabuy says.
Video visitation is taking hold in a couple facilities in New Hampshire. But according to Rabuy, Cheshire County Jail is the only place that also bans in person visits. She says that policy makes little sense, because for most people doing time in jail, their families actually live nearby.
"We’re taking away a family’s right to an in person visit when they’re most able to provide that for their incarcerated loved one," she says.
Video visitation is catching on really fast nationwide. And 75 percent of the jails that use it have gone ahead and ended in person visits all together—even when that wasn’t required in the contract. So for families like Dawn Herbert in Keene, that little screen will remain the closest she can get to her son.