Video Visitation: Video Conferencing in Prisons Promises Simpler, More Convenient Visitation Options

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Mary is getting ready to graduate from the 8th grade. Her mom helped her get ready–she has had her ears pierced for the first time just for the occasion. After the ceremony, she goes to talk to her dad, who says how proud of her he is, and how his heart swelled when she got her diploma. Mary and her dad say they love each other, and then she turns off her phone, and he goes back to his cell. He might be in prison, but for a short time he was with his daughter as she entered the next stage of her life.

At any given moment, nearly 3% of the population of America is in prison in some form or the other–state, federal, or local. Close to 70% of prisoners in federal prisons are between the age of 26-50, prime time for watching families grow, which means they miss out on nearly every major milestone in their family members’ lives (the plurality of sentences are between 5 and 20 years, with less than 3% being less than one year). This kind of isolation can be devastating psychologically, which is why many prisons encourage visitation. Unfortunately, visitation isn’t always possible. But there’s a technological solution: teleconferencing technology.

The Importance and Challenges of Prison Visitation

Visitation rights allow prisoners to talk to loved ones, keeping them connected to the outside world and focused on getting better and getting out. Visitations are known to reduce symptoms of depression, as well as keeping prisoners socialized, making prisons safer, and making rehabilitation easier. But for many, especially in the private or federal system, prisons are far away, and transportation and lodging can be prohibitively expensive.

More than 500 facilities in 43 states have some kind of teleconferencing facility. One of those is Lake County, IL jail, where one prisoner raved about the technology. “A few kind words from family and seeing a friendly face is far more personal than a simple phone call, (Beth Coleman) said. It can make all the difference in the world.”

Teleconferencing allows prisoners to expand their worlds by enlarging the circle of people they can interact with. That can make for a huge difference: instead of just seeing one person every week, a prisoner can connect with many people. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, these interactions can actually lower recidivism and improve inmate behavior.

But what comes next? How do we make the most of video conferencing technology, and how do we make a video visitation more like an actual visit? The answer lies with the future of teleconferencing technology.

What the Future of Teleconferencing Means for Prison Visitation

As teleconferencing equipment gets more powerful and advanced, it may make visitations easier and more creative in a number of ways:

  • Multiple Users. One of the drawbacks of regular visits is that only a couple people are allowed to visit at a time: at most two adults, or one adult and some children. That’s not a problem with teleconferencing, where new technology allows for multiple, theoretically unlimited, users on a single call. A group of friends and family could “visit” someone in prison for their birthday, or an inmate could feel included in a family reunion. Even if not everyone gets to talk, seeing everyone’s face and interacting as part of a group is a big deal.
  • More Tactile. Touch releases positive hormones and reduces stress, and, even unscientifically, it reminds us we’re connected. That’s why the “no touching” rule during visitations–understandable due to concerns about contraband–can leave prisoners feeling angry and frustrated, reducing overall safety for everyone. With the rapid growth of tactile technology, teleconference visits of the future could well involve feeling and touch between inmates and visitors, in a limited way. Sensor gloves can allow people to feel as though they are holding hands or hugging. With a virtual visit using sensor gloves similar to virtual reality haptic gloves, you can establish something close to an actual physical connection, without any worry of contraband.
  • ‘Visiting’ Other Locales. Even with visits, inmates only get to see their loved ones in the context of the prison. The use of smart and portable teleconference technology means that prisoners can see a loved one at home, at school, during a special occasion, or while on a trip. All they need is the right equipment, such as a smartphone or video enabled tablet with Facetime or Skype, or a more closed-circuit system that connects directly to the prison system.
  • Virtual Reality Tours. Virtual reality has reached a tipping point, and expenses are coming down. Inmates have some entertainment options in prison, but are limited in what they have access to. With VR becoming a feasible reality, it may soon be possible for a loved one or relative to create a 3D tour of a new house for an inmate, or a recreation of a place they used to love going to. A prison might allow VR for good behavior, enabling an inmate to travel without ever leaving the facility. In the near future, visitors–whether in the prison or remote–will be able to participate in a multi-user virtual reality simulation. This means that they can go for a walk while holding haptic hands, go to a virtual museum, or play a game together.

For the first time in a long time, there is a groundswell of interest in prison conditions, overcrowding, rehabilitation, and reintegration. Teleconferencing can help ease many of those problems. It can create better conditions for everyone, improving psychological, and thus physical, well-being. It won’t end crime, and won’t end overstuffed prisons, but it can help make life better for the incarcerated, their families, and ultimately, the whole of society.

Image source: Flickr CC user Michael Coghlan

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