On September 23, 2016, hundreds of protesters marching through the streets of Uptown Charlotte stopped outside of the Mecklenburg County Jail on East 4th Street. They were there to show solidarity in protest after Mecklenburg ends in-person jail visits.
As some inmates inside flicked their lights on and off in recognition, the protesters chanted:
“We see you, we hear you, we love you.”
Mecklenburg County Jail’s Decision to End In-Person Jail Visitation Sparks New Concerns
Recently, Creative Loafing reported on Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office’s decision to end in-person visitation. Since then, there have been major concerns about the negative impacts this decision has on the inmates and their loved ones.
In place of these in-person visitations, inmates will now only be able to communicate with with prison loved ones using remote video chat services. According to the service provider, GTL, the new jail video chat system will enrich prisoners’ lives at Mecklenburg County Jail.
As a GTL product manager puts it:
“I enjoy hearing all the stories about inmates who, through internet visitation, are able to attend their child’s birthday party or see the pet they love, all things that are not possible with traditional visitation methods at a correctional facility.”
Contrary to what GTL Corporation believes, people, especially the friends and families of inmates, are concerned about this development. There is no physical contact allowed whatsoever during these video prison visits.
High Costs of Prison Inmates In-Person and Online Visits
One major problem this policy was aimed at solving is the high costs of the prison video visitations.
Every inmate held at the Work Release and Restitution Center on Elizabeth Avenue is allowed 25 minutes of FREE video chat time per week.
All additional visits scheduled for Mecklenburg County Jail inmates are held off-site on the Internet and are charged $12.50 for a 25-minute session.
Inmates’ loved ones often have to bear costs like food, hygiene requirements, and legal representation. Add those to the costs of prison visitations and there goes a significant challenge for average prison families.
This goes without saying economically disadvantaged families usually make up the greater percentage in the justice system.
According to a former inmate of the prison, her family spent between $50 to $80 weekly while she was locked up. This was the costs of keeping with visitations and meeting her basic needs.
A study was conducted by the Ella Baker Center in 2014. It revealed that one-third of the families of inmates run into substantial debt trying to cover the costs of visitations or keeping in touch.
Obama Administration Tried to Change Things
During The Obama Administration, there were attempts to reduce the cost of prison communications. But, those attempts met serious opposition and lawsuits from prison communication providers.
Ajit Pai, the head of FCC under Trump’s administration said the agency will not intervene in the current regulations.
Cat Bao Le is the founding director of Southeast Asian Coalition in Charlotte. His major concern is the inconvenience the video monitoring for non-English speaking prison families.
In the past, companies who manage prison communication services were infamous for charging inmate families exorbitantly. Some say this has yet to change.
Video Prison Visits: Pros for Prisons
Another major concern is the safety of inmates and guards. The Mecklenburg County Sherriff’s Office was questioned about its decision.
Authorities say video interactions would make it easier for detention officers at Mecklenburg County Jail to keep inmates and their prison families safe.
Video Prison Visits: Cons for Prisoners
Inmates’ families have a different opinion, however, on what makes the prison safe for guards and their families. In-person visits give inmates:
- Something to look forward to
- Keeps them in line with a valuable incentive
- Makes them resilient while doing their prison time
Some of the families do not understand how to use the Internet. Therefore, they face difficulty during the video visitations.
Cat Bao Le organization helps families of juvenile inmates, especially immigrants. They help with translation and enlighten the family about the entire process. He says:
“Going to video has been so difficult for this family.”
Being able to drop in with two or three family members during that designated time and going in to see someone cuts out the literacy divide, the digital divide, the cultural divide, the monetary divide. They’re illiterate, they’re indigenous people from Vietnam, they don’t even know how to read in their own language.
Not being able to speak English, not having transportation — and we don’t have a way we can contact them otherwise, so we just have to drive over there. And you have to register [for video conferencing] 24 hours in advance. Before you could just put their names down, whoever’s going to visit, and you could go in. Now there’s just so many different steps.”
GTL Makes a Promise
Looking on the positive side, however, Le points out that video conferencing will allow families of inmates living in other states to keep in touch.
GTL has also carefully absolved itself from the blame by pointing out that the video conferencing was defined to be a supplement to in-person visits… not to eliminate them.
Learn More About the Costs of Prison Visits & Communications
Do you believe that last line? Do you really believe that GTL has no intentions on doing it’s best to help prisons and jails eliminate in-person visits altogether? Tell us what you think in the comments below?