In Phoenix’s Maricopa County jail, handsets and video screens have replaced face-to-face contact for visitors and inmates, the Arizona Republic reports. What’s happening here could become the norm across the country as jails and prisons increasingly embrace video visitation as a smart management policy. As technology continues to improve, such video encounters eventually could take place from the comfort of home, virtually revolutionizing visitation. Families bemoan the loss of personal contact, even though touching and hand-holding was never allowed. Officials say it’s not such a bad trade-off for more frequent visits, much shorter wait times and safer jails.
Because inmates hook up in their housing units, it cuts down on movement, reduces assaults and eliminates opportunities for contraband to be smuggled into jails. Video visitation also helps inmates maintain contact with their families, making them mellower behind bars and perhaps keeping them connected enough to ease their transition back home. That in turn could reduce recidivism. “It’s a good, good morale booster on both sides of the fence,” Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said. Video visitation has reduced wait time for visits from several hours to minutes, as inmates no longer must be escorted by detention officers to visiting areas with limited seating. There are 126 booths for visitors, spread over the three facilities, and 280 for inmates. Each station costs up to $4,000 and is paid for from a one-fifth cent sales tax voters approved for jails in 1998 and extended for 20 more years in 2002. Public defenders, probation officers, and even some criminal attorneys will get video access in their offices over the next six months. The county is working with ValueOptions, a public mental-health provider, to provide hookups for virtual psychiatric evaluations. Judges have expressed interest in electronic courtrooms.