COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A Franklin County jail is eliminating face-to-face visits between inmates and their guests.
Through a partnership with Viapath Technologies, those behind bars at the 650-bed Franklin County Corrections Center II in Columbus on Jackson Pike will instead be given two 20-minute virtual visits — via a tablet assigned to residential units within the prison — to speak, according to the Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Maureen Kocot with her loved ones every week.
While some called the change devastating for Franklin County families, others celebrated the logistical convenience that virtual visits could bring.
“The change will allow you to have more frequent visits to an incarcerated person without leaving the comfort of your home,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
The introduction of tablets grants prison inmates an additional 10 minutes of visitation, overtaking the current system of allowing a 30-minute visit per week through a plexiglass screen.
It’s designed in part, the sheriff’s office said, to increase the efficiency of deputies in the prison.
“Rather than spending significant time escorting individuals through the facility for scheduled in-person visits, deputies will be more readily available to answer questions and address individual needs,” the sheriff’s office said.
Under an existing 2021 contract, Viapath Technologies provided the county with wired headphones and a tablet, at no cost, for every five inmates incarcerated, per the contract obtained by the Franklin County Board of Commissioners.
Former Columbus resident Ashia Bruton said she is a frequent visitor to the downtown Franklin County Jail. Bruton, a single mother, was visiting the father of her newborn daughter while he awaited his trial, and it wasn’t always a pleasant experience, she said.
“You talk to them through a plexiglass – the plexiglass, they’re dirty, they’re steamed up. You can’t touch the person,” said Bruton, founder and CEO of Unlocking Futures, a nonprofit that helps incarcerated parents. “You have other people on this floor who speak louder; They may not be able to hear their loved one.”
With the spread of the coronavirus – and the shabby communication across the glass screen – Bruton said she likely would have kept her daughter home for virtual visits if the option had been available at the time.
However, she argued that virtual visits should be optional, as for some in prison, seeing a loved one in person is a precious sight outside the facility’s concrete walls.
“Getting those face-to-face visits is like the only chance they have, the only connection they have with the outside world,” Bruton said.
People incarcerated in the jail can still keep in touch with loved ones through the jail’s phones for 4 cents a minute, the minimum standard rate set by the Federal Communications Commission, the sheriff’s office said. The tablets can also be used to make phone calls, increasing the ratio of devices per person in prison.
For $5, visitors can schedule virtual visits beyond the two free ones with those detained at the correction center, the sheriff’s office said. Guests who wish to visit someone in prison but do not have internet-enabled devices can travel to the prison and use the facility’s tablets.
“It’s important for friends and family to stay connected with loved ones, and we will be offering a transition period from in-person to virtual visits to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible,” the sheriff’s office said.
But dr Rosemary Martoma, a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, called the elimination of in-person visits “devastating,” especially for one in 14 children who have an incarcerated parent in the United States
Many children don’t have the verbal skills to communicate appropriately with a parent, said Martoma, also president of KidsMates, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting children of incarcerated parents. Taking away a personal space — where families can read each other’s body language and nonverbal cues more efficiently — could affect a child’s ability to connect with a parent, she said.
“Incarcerated parents can and have been and will continue to be a really important part of their children’s lives if it helps,” Martoma said. “I think taking a loving parent or family member away and isolating them is very detrimental to long-term family structures.”
The concrete and metal setup of most jails and jails in the US doesn’t always allow for the best reception either, Martoma said. Swapping in-person visits for virtual visits isn’t a viable substitute, as correction centers are often “riddled with technical difficulties,” she said.
“Even if you’re separated by a glass, you know you can see that person’s face and you have a certain amount of time,” she said. “There are no promises about what happens on a (virtual) visit.”
As Martoma reiterated, Dr. Paul Bellair, director of the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State University, addressed concerns about technical issues arising from virtual visits.
But he said it was a compromise, as virtual visits could make it easier for inmates to connect with loved ones who might otherwise have to travel or take time off work to get to prison. The addition of a second 20-minute window to speak to a loved one gives inmates another opportunity to connect with those outside the prison’s concrete walls.
“There are a lot of pros and cons, but I think having a video meeting can be important for maintaining those connections,” Bellair said. “Also, it doesn’t require the person visiting their incarcerated loved one to drive to the prison and deal with these types of issues and parking, especially for lower-income families.”
In an ideal world, Martoma said she would like to see the option for video conferencing added to the in-person visits that already exist, not replaced.
“Social isolation affects the health and mortality of people who are incarcerated,” she said. “I think isolating them even more has to be something done extremely sensibly.”
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