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Civil Rights

Prison Visits: Punishment, Profit, Hope

— December 8, 2016

In any society, there are people who break the rules. What the people of that society choose to do about that not only says something about that society, it also determines how well that society is going to re-assimilate the rulebreakers. If the crime is egregious and the victims hurt beyond repair, there is a natural human urge to wreak vengeance. Revenge and retribution, however, may not be appropriate for every rulebreaker or every crime, and further costs will accrue to society if we get this judgment wrong. What is prison for, in our society? It depends who you ask, and even more, it depends on what they stand to gain from the institutions of incarceration. Prison visits are one example of the way profit and punishment collide while missing the point of the penitentiary.

At the Cheshire County Jail in Keene, New Hampshire, as well as other jails and some prisons across the country, prison visits are changing. What used to be an in-person visit where an inmate’s family could sit, talk, maybe hug, and see each other face to face, is rapidly transitioning to video visitation. Even if the family or friends are in the same building where their incarcerated loved one is being held, they can see each other only over a glitchy and semi-broken video link. The official explanation is often that prison visits pose a safety risk, and eliminating in-person visitation reduces the chances of contraband getting into the facility. There’s also a carrot-and-stick cost incentive, because institutions that go all-video can reduce their staff budget while potentially making money from charging families for video link-ups.

What is prison for? If the aim is to punish the prisoner and cause as much pain as possible under the law, using only video visitation is working well. Securus, the video-link provider that installs this technology for prison visits, has a reputation for bad quality video feeds with sound and images that skew and cut out regularly, and has for years. At a dollar a minute, technology being what it is, video visitation should at least have high definition, clear images and quality sound. Can you imagine the frustration of paying through the nose for the only chance you’ll get to see your husband or wife, son or daughter, and not being able to make it work properly? What if you need to discuss matters of importance as you manage their affairs on the outside? It’s inhumane. Richard Van Wickler, a jail superintendent in New Hampshire, explains to NPR: “When one violates the law and one has to serve time in a public institution, one of the liberties that one could lose is the opportunity to hug a loved one.” This punishes more than just the prisoner, though. It costs all of us.

Losing the human touch and being forced to rely on a screen brings to mind a famous psychology experiment by Harry Harlow, using baby monkeys. Harlow separated the babies from their mothers shortly after birth and then provided them with a choice of two artificial “mothers.” One was made from cold, hard wire, yet had a milk-filled bottle attached for nourishment, and the other was covered with a snuggly cloth, yet supplied no food. The babies chose overwhelmingly to spend their time cuddled up to the cloth “mother,” approaching the wire “mother” only when hungry and hurrying back when finished. Baby monkeys given only a wire “mother” withered and suffered from what can only be described as depression. Importantly, the babies raised with these surrogate mothers grew up broken. They “exhibited excessive and misdirected aggression” and the females who grew up to become mothers themselves were “indifferent or abusive” to their own babies, sometimes biting or injuring them unto death.

Harlow’s Monkeys, by TheSasss1

Likewise, recidivism declines when inmates are allowed in-person visitation with their friends and families, who serve as support networks, keeping morale alive while their loved one is inside, and helping them integrate back into lives, communities, and potential jobs once they get out. A study of 16,000 prisoners performed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections over five years showed that prisoners who received at least one in-person visit at any point during their incarceration “were 13 percent less likely to commit another felony and 25 percent less likely to end up back in prison on a technical parole violation.” More live prison visits proved to be even more effective in keeping prisoners from returning.

Are making money by selling horrible video feeds, and punishing criminals by taking away the human touch, such important goals that we don’t mind paying for it later in increased recidivism, broken families, and generational cycles of dysfunction? If society’s rulebreakers injure us because they don’t feel like they’re part of society, alienating them further will not help. In order for them to become better people, their debt to society must be paid in a way that allows them to feel that their lives matter. Because if they don’t, they’ll have nothing else to lose.

Virginia Jail Holds Father-Daughter Dance For Prisoners, by BuzzNewsNow


Video Calls Replace In-Person Visits In Some Jails
The End of Prison Visitation
Prison Visits Make Inmates Less Likely To Commit Crimes After Release, Study Finds
No More Wire Mothers, Ever
The Experiment

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