Illinois’ 25 state prisons are due to start using video visitation in the spring, and it has become the norm in scores of other correctional facilities across the U.S., says the Chicago Tribune. In some places, the technology enables inmates’ loved ones to “visit” from their homes through Skype-like chatting — a service typically provided for a fee by a contractor, with profits often shared with jail operators. Jailers say the format offers advantages to visitors, inmates and guards alike. It eliminates the need to escort inmates and visitors through correctional facilities, which cuts down on the use of personnel, increases security and reduces contraband and confrontations among inmates. Advocates say the big advantage for families is the possibility of remote video visitation: For example, a relative in the Chicago area could talk to an inmate at a Downstate prison for a small fraction of what it might cost to travel there.
Research suggests that visitation with family and friends helps improve inmate behavior in custody, reduces repeat offending and eases inmates back into life once they’re released. Critics worry that video will replace face-to-face visits and that providers will subject their captive customers to exorbitant fees. John Maki of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a Chicago-based inmate advocacy organization, welcomed video only as an additional option. “It’s a fundamental right to have meaningful visits with loved ones,” he said. “If it’s to supplement in-person visits, that’s great. I think the danger in video visitation is using it to replace in-person visits.”