Mental Health and Video Visitations

    Video visitations are increasingly being used in prisons to "manage" the visitation rights of inmates from the inside.  The use of video visitations is a mental health issue because it denies parents needed contact with children.  Face-to-face contact with family and friends is imperative since many inmates are in a precarious mental state.  Indeed, many prisoners state that knowing that they are going to have a visit from a loved one is the only thing that gets them through the week.

New York Times
November 11, 2006

A Jail Turns to Video for Visitations

By Robert Strauss

EDMOND C. CICCHI, the warden at the Middlesex County Adult Corrections Center, saw only chaos during visitation hours at his jail in North Brunswick, N.J.

“You have to visualize the visitation hall and see all these people crowded in there,” said Mr. Cicchi, whose jail averages about 1,200 prisoners a day. “You could have 160 people in there shoulder to shoulder.

“Our people would have to get each prisoner out of the housing unit and parade them through the jail to get to the room. It was just a mess, and asking for problems.”

So two years ago, Mr. Cicchi accepted an invitation from Stanley Security Solutions to see its secure videoconferencing system. Now, except for special circumstances, all contact between inmates and visitors at the jail takes place not in person, but via video screens: On Nov. 1, the Middlesex center became the first jail in New Jersey to use video visitations nearly exclusively, Mr. Cicchi said.

“It took us two years, but we finally have what we want installed,” he said.

He said that for a face-to-face visit, a prisoner had to make a special application and have no violations for 90 days. Because most county inmates serve no more than a year, not many will work up enough time for such a visit.

That does not bother Mr. Cicchi, who says the video visitation will allow the jail to reduce staffing “because we won’t need so many guards to transport prisoners to and back from the visitation room.” The passing of contraband — mostly money, drugs or cigarettes — will also be reduced, he said.

There are 45 video cameras and monitors for inmates and 41 for visitors — the inmates’ in the housing unit and the visitors’ in the secure visitation area. The system cost about $700,000.

Guards can monitor the conversations if they feel there is an emergency or suspect that there is talk that could lead to escape or that contraband smuggling is going on.

Before, Mr. Cicchi said, each visitor had to be searched, at least electronically, before a visit, and guards strip-searched prisoners on the way back to the housing unit. Mr. Cicchi said that at least twice each week the searches turned up contraband.

“You may think money or drugs are not much, but they can be used down the line to make trouble, since they are used for barter for much more dangerous things,” he said.

But that does not satisfy the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The A.C.L.U. says that prisoners — especially those serving short sentences like the inmates of the Middlesex jail — should be allowed face-to-face visits, which it calls essential to prisoners’ mental stability.

“You’ve got to remember that many, maybe most, people in jails are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of anything, so they are in a precarious mental state,” said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of New Jersey. “They need that face-to-face contact, which is a fundamental thing to deny. I wonder about the cost-benefit analysis here. I wonder that the diminished morale in the environment might affect security even worse.”

The New Jersey Department of Corrections has used similar video visitations, but for more contact, not less, between inmates — especially women — and their families. Otherwise, said Deirdre Fedkenheuer, a Corrections Department spokeswoman, the 26,000 prisoners, men and women, in the state’s 14 correctional institutions still get face-to-face visitations.

“We wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise in most places,” she said. “There are 3,000 prisoners, say, at South Woods in Bridgeton. How could we set up that many monitors?”

But at Middlesex, Mr. Cicchi is pleased with his decision to install the video system, although no other county has yet to do the same.

“They were bringing in contraband in babies’ diapers,” he said of the visitors. “There they would be at a 50-foot-long table, close together, and we just couldn’t see everything. I’m concerned with security, and I think we are doing it best this way.”

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