Fighting for face time

Butte County Jail to make the switch to a video visitation system

Erin Maverick believes the video-chat system won’t be a good substitute for an in-person visit with an inmate at Butte County Jail.

Erin Maverick believes the video-chat system won’t be a good substitute for an in-person visit with an inmate at Butte County Jail.

Photo By howard hardee

As someone with a close family member currently incarcerated at Butte County Jail, Erin Maverick was particularly distressed to learn that soon, face-to-face visits with inmates won’t be possible.

That’s because, within the next several weeks, Butte County Jail will complete its transition away from traditional visitation—in which inmate and visitor are separated by glass and converse over the phone—in favor of a “video visitation system” similar to Skype’s video chat.

Maverick, a surgical assistant at Butte Humane Society’s spay-and-neuter clinic, drafted a petition in mid-June via in which she called for the Butte County Board of Supervisors to keep the traditional visits.

“Ending the face-to-face visitation will lower the morale of the prisoner and their loved ones,” Maverick wrote in the petition. “It will cause a disconnect between the inmate and the outside world. … This in turn will hurt their chances of success once they are released. It may very well be a contributing factor to future repeat offenders.”

Though the petition had gathered a modest 26 signatures as of press time (and Maverick expressed doubt that the petition will prompt county officials to reconsider the move), it got the attention of District 5 Supervisor Doug Teeter, who wrote in a June 25 email to Maverick: “I am setting up a site visit to the jail to evaluate the new system with respect to your concerns.”

That system will include a new fee, but not all visitors will be charged for the video chats, Butte County Undersheriff Kory Honea said during a phone interview. There will be two options—chatting for free on a screen in the lobby of the jail, or paying $20 for a 20-minute conversation on a personal computer.

The video-visitation system will eliminate both the need to transfer dozens of inmates from their housing units to the visitation area and the associated cost of staffing, a cost-saving measure Honea said is particularly appealing as the jail grapples with the financial aspects of adhering to state-mandated prisoner realignment under AB 109.

The new system will also allow for expanded visiting hours (from exclusively weekends to seven days a week); increased contact from friends and family who live out-of-state; more security for both prisoners and staff members by keeping inmates in their housing units; and reduced likelihood of a visitor passing contraband to a prisoner.

The new kiosks prisoners will use during their video visits are set to include a touch-screen system for looking up court dates, ordering commissary items, and scheduling medical appointments.

And while he touted the system’s sound and video clarity after personally testing the video chat, Honea recognizes many of the jail’s visitors won’t be satisfied with anything short of a face-to-face interaction.

A plan at the jail will make this visitation room a relic of the past.

PHOTO courtesy of butte county sheriff’s office

“I’ve read the petition and understand there’s some concern about the system and [that] the quality of visitation will be diminished,” Honea said. “That’s something we looked at very closely when we decided to invest in this technology. Clearly, inmates being able to visit with friends and family is important.

“That issue is not lost on me, but we have to continually weigh our various options and approaches. The benefit we’ll gain from this was ultimately worth it.”

State prisons and county jails across the nation have adopted video-visitation programs either in addition to or in lieu of traditional, face-to-face systems, Honea said, explaining that once visitors become accustomed to the set-up, the new systems have been generally well-received.

But exactly how prisoners are affected by communicating with their loved ones through a computer screen has yet to be studied empirically, said Margaret diZerega, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Family Justice Program. In conducting a Washington state-based study, “A new role for technology: The impact of video visitation on corrections staff, inmates, and their families,” diZerega’s team is doing just that, though the preliminary research (the study was launched in January) has yet to offer any definitive conclusions.

“We are seeing more jails moving toward non-contact visits, and I don’t really think we know what the implications are yet,” diZerega said. “All this stuff is so new, and studies haven’t been done. The Washington study will be the first of its kind for prison settings. We don’t really know what the impact is going to be.”

Unlike Butte County, Washington is offering video visitation in addition to face-to-face meetings rather than as a replacement, diZerega said. State officials hope the video visits will allow inmates more frequent contact with the outside world, particularly with friends or family members who live too far away to visit in person.

“Video visitation is an interesting option when it’s about increasing frequency of contact or expanding the range of people who can stay in touch with somebody who is incarcerated, but not as a substitute for in-person visits,” she said.

In any case, diZerega said, a significant body of research on state-prison populations suggests receiving regular visits is tremendously important for an inmate’s overall state of mind.

“People in prison who get more visits, they have fewer behavioral issues while they’re incarcerated and also do better once they’re back out into the community,” she said.

In speaking with visiting friends and family members of other inmates at Butte County Jail, Maverick has gathered that many also feel the video system won’t offer an adequate substitute.

“A lot of these people, they don’t feel it’s worth the cost of gas money to go [to the jail] and see them on a screen, because it’s not the same thing,” she said. “For a lot of people, they just say, ‘It’s not an option; it’s not worth it to me if it’s just through a screen.’”

More than anything, Maverick worries for the mental health of her own family member, who is looking at a potentially lengthy sentence without hope of regularly seeing friends and family in person.

“I know a lot of people will say [inmates] are in there to be punished, but how are they ever supposed to get on the right path if they don’t have people supporting them, talking to them, and letting them know that they’re loved?”