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There are more than 2.2 million people in America’s prisons and jails, which is unparalleled by any other country. Mass incarceration policies have seared through our communities and families, with multi-generational collateral consequences, such as inhibiting economic mobility, fostering political disengagement, and separating parents from their children and families. In fact, there are millions of young people who have had an incarcerated parent – ChildTrends​.org estimates about 5 million. For children whose parents are in jail or prison, incarceration can become a barrier to familial bonds. 

Alberta Public Security | cre​ativecom​mons​.org

Unfortunately, California’s counties are moving to exacerbate the collateral consequences of incarceration on young people by limiting the opportunities to visit incarcerated family members in-person. Instead, county jails are adopting video visitation” as a replacement for in-person space for families. California’s policymakers and systems leaders must reverse this shift by requiring in-person visitation space in jails and guaranteeing that the communities most impacted by these policies have a say in how facilities are designed.

In jails that have exclusively adopted video visitation, the practice has been marred by poor technological implementation, high costs to California’s most vulnerable communities, and severe restrictions on the ability of families to maintain meaningful relationships. The Prison Policy Initiative’s (PPI) Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails provides a critical national overview of these practices across the 43 states in which video visitation has been adopted.

PPI highlights how jurisdictions move to eliminate in-person space once video practices are established. Moreover, video visitation often uses spotty technology that drops calls, freezes images, and prevents people from looking each other in the eye. Many consoles do not afford any privacy to those who are incarcerated, limiting the types of personal conversations they can have with their families. Plus, more frequent use of video services comes with fees, which are not imposed on families who connect through in-person visitation. Families should not be charged for the basic need to connect with their loved ones.

Who Pays? The true cost of incarceration on families | Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

California’s jails have increasingly removed in-person family visitation space. As of March 2015, when the most recent data are available, California’s jails housed over 72,000 people. These are people that will eventually return to their families, children, and communities. Yet at least 12 counties have moved to either eliminate or greatly restrict in-person visitation jail space. This should give all Californians concern, especially in light of a 2014 U.S. Department of Justice report finding that in-person visitation better supports reentry, improves employment opportunities, and strengthens relationships between parents and their children.

California’s Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) recently considered the issue of in-person visitation space, through their development of facility regulations. The BSCC created a committee to advise the agency on such regulations, and this committee decided not to mandate in-person in county jails. However, as one recent meeting demonstrates, this revisions process failed to include the communities most impacted by their decisions, including community-based organizations, family members, formerly incarcerated persons, and young people. Many of the advisory members were sheriffs who came from jurisdictions that had either eliminated in-person space in their jails or were planning to do so in the future. They did not want to be bound by the costs and regulations associated with mandating in-person space, with some committee members noting the potential negative impacts of in-person visits, such as exposing children to the inside of a jail…”. What about the very clear negative consequences of denying children the chance to interact face-to-face with an incarcerated parent?”

While limiting childhood trauma is beneficial, there are many ways to create safe visiting environments for youth and others to visit their incarcerated family members. CJCJ operates the a program, which helps facilitate family visitation in one of San Francisco’s jails by creating opportunities for children to talk and play with an incarcerated parent in a safe and nurturing environment. CJCJ’s Deputy Director Dinky Manek Enty notes, Our staff maintain a child-friendly room with a variety of toys and crafts in the jail, solely utilized for child and family in-person contact visits. This unique environment within the jail facility allows children to relax and play with their parent in a safe and supportive place.” Through this service, our staff works to strengthen these essential family connections.

Children play at CJCJ’s Children’s Waiting Rooms

To combat this movement away from video visitation, California State Senator Holly Mitchell recently introduced Senate Bill (SB) 1157, which clarifies that in-person visitation must be prioritized in correctional facilities. SB 1157 is so important because it honors the essential role of family and community relationships in improving public safety.

Eliminating in-person family visitation space, in lieu of video visitation, directly hurts those who are incarcerated and keeps their loved ones locked out. Such myopic policies only serve to compound the seemingly immeasurable impact that California’s overreliance on incarceration has had on our communities.