Virtual Prison Visits Mean Some Prison Inmates Never See Family in the Flesh

Virtual prison visits could strip prisoners of vital human contact

You might ask your friends this hypothetical question on social media or while relaxing with a beer: How long could you last if your only contact with the outside world was by video call?

It sounds possible, and maybe even not too bad. You could telecommute to work, catch endless hours of entertainment on live streams and on-demand video, order all your food online, and socialize with dozens of people at once with a group video chat app like Facebook Messenger.

So how long could you keep that up before you just had to meet somebody in person? Days, weeks, months? For the inmates of one Massachusetts jail, the answer is years. And they don’t have the luxury of hypotheticals. While they can socialize with the others incarcerated with them, no visits from people on the outside are allowed. They can now only visit with family and friends from the wider world through video conferencing.

Video conferencing technology has come a long way in the past decade, but even in its most experimental current forms it cannot replicate time spent with family and friends in the flesh, which is why we’re skeptical about facilities that make virtual prison visits a person’s sole point of interaction with others from the outside.

Virtual Prison Visits

In July this year, the powers that be at the Bristol County House of Corrections in North Dartmouth announced they would end all in-person visits to inmates in favor of video conferencing.

The move is designed to prevent banned substances, namely drugs, from getting into the prison. A specialized video calling trailer has been built on the prison grounds for visitors who want don’t have access to video calling equipment or a connection–they can travel to the prison and video call from the prison’s own facilities. Remote video calls from private lines are also accepted. The trailer is filled with a row of video phones, which look a lot like the rows of public telephones we used to see at train stations and airports.

The prison is the first in Massachusetts to switch from in-person to virtual prison visits, but it is by no means the only prison in the country to do so. It has been reported that more than 70% of jails that introduce visitation by video call go on to ban in-person visits. With more than 500 correctional facilities across America currently offering the video visitation option, if that trend continues, thousands of inmates are going to be left with only a virtual window onto the outside world.

The Downside of Video Calling

As much as we consider ourselves here at VC Daily to be cheerleaders for the technology and use of video conferencing, the bottom line is that video conferencing just isn’t the same as in-person communication. At least, not right now. It is a great substitute when distance and circumstance make sharing the same space impossible, impractical, or just plain expensive. And in the right setting, such as a business forum, it can be an improvement on an in-person meeting by providing visual and informative enhancements such as augmented, virtual, and mixed realities, instant file sharing, and built-in translation services (like we talked about in our Skype translator review). There’s also little doubt it will soon change the way we shop, bank, and seek medical advice online.

On an emotional level though, video conferencing is best kept as a way to augment communication between physical interactions. On those terms, it’s a great way for remotely located families to stay connected, perhaps while one member is on active military duty or away on business for an extended period.                       

However, as an L.A. Times editorial noted just a few months ago, once you start employing video conferencing to replace human physical interaction, you run the risk of dangerously undermining a person’s basic human needs. That editorial described policies of video call-only visitation as unnecessarily cruel and stupid.

We usually end these posts dreaming of a hypothetical future in which video conferencing is the good guy, the tech that can make great things possible. But this certainly takes the fun out of our hypothetical.

Future Video Calling May Offer a Human Touch

If video conferencing has to be only form of contact with one’s friends and family, there are several promising technologies currently at the experimental stage that could eventually grant video callers the power of touch. Researchers in Canada are working on ‘Flex-N-Feel’ virtual touch gloves that have the power to convey the physical pressure of a partner’s touch across a video call via interactive, tactile wearables. Elsewhere, MIT’s Tangible Media Group has wowed online audiences with its inFORM video calling technology that can render the shape and movement of objects across the web. That tech could one day make it possible to embrace a remote caller in real-time.

Those advances, however, are the closest we’ve come so far to adding a physical dimension to video conferencing, and in their current state they’re a poor imitation.

As to our hypothetical, how long could I personally last living a life where contact with the outside world was entirely virtual? Not long, and I could only hold out for reasons of proving a point, or winning a bet. If I didn’t have a choice in the matter–if I was an inmate forced to trade handshakes and hugs for a video call–I’d be writing to whomever makes the rules and asking them to reconsider. Video conferencing is an addition to our lives, not the venue for them.

Subscribe to VC Daily