Jail Inmates and Their Families Protest Video-Only Visits

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
July 20, 1999 12:00 am

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TAMPA, FL — The tiny hand of his 14-month-old daughter pressed against a glass barricade was the lifeline that kept jail inmate Michael Barfield connected to his family and the outside world.

Now, Associated Press reports, as jails in central Florida implement “video visitation,” Barfield and other inmates are limited to viewing images of their loved ones on video monitors.

“Seeing him on a TV screen was so impersonal,” his fiancee Sharon Patten said. “Our daughter didn’t recognize him. She used to wave and touch the glass. This is leaving Michael feeling more like an outcast.”

Barfield, a paralegal, pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents in hopes of getting a judge removed from a money laundering case in Cape Coral.

Increasingly, jails and prisons in Florida and other parts of the country are installing high-tech computer networks to conduct visits, according to The Tampa Tribune.

The use of telecommunication technology in prisons is growing, as are complaints against it, according to Kara Gotsch, Public Policy Coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project (/issues/prisons/hmprisons.html). Several court rulings have allowed correctional facilities to set their own visitation policies.

But “just because they can do it legally doesn’t make the policy right or even constructive,” Gotsch said. “Families can’t have relationships with a video monitor, but that is exactly what they’re asking them to do. This is an example of the type of policies that continue the cycle of recidivism.”

At Hillsborough’s Falkenburg Road Jail, where a room lined with video monitors links visitors with inmates in secure areas of the jail, deputies praised the technology, saying it virtually eliminates contraband.

Corrections officers also say the technology is better for visitors. “It can be traumatic having to walk through jail,” an official at Morgan Street Jail told AP. “This is just a more decent way of letting visitations happen.”

At that jail, visitors now are searched, taken through metal security doors and into the visiting room in the center of the jail. The room features two walls lined with telephone receivers next to 10-inch by 12-inch panes of glass. Deputies keep watch as inmates speak for as long as an hour with their visitors.

The new $38,000 system at Morgan Street, expected to be ready by Aug. 1, will keep visitors in the jail’s lobby with six video monitors. It will be paid for with profit from inmate canteen purchases and telephone charges, typically used to pay for inmate books and educational programs.

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