by Lonnie Burton
Under new rules adopted by a state regulatory agency in February 2017, any California jail that offered in-person prisoner visitation at the beginning of 2017 may not limit visits to video calls. Further, all future jails in the state will have to provide space for in-person, face-to-face visits, except facilities currently under construction.
In June 2017, state lawmakers took two additional steps to fight the trend toward providing video calls in local jails by requiring them to provide the first hour for free and preventing them from offering video calls exclusively.
Those moves followed Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of a bill in late 2016 that would have required California jails to provide the option of in-person visits. Senate Bill 1157 would have mandated that all county jails make space for face-to-face visitation by 2022. [See: PLN, July 2016, p.38]. Governor Brown rejected that plan, however, citing the high cost of retrofitting facilities that do not currently have visitation areas.
In his veto message, though, the governor noted the importance of in-person visits, writing that banning them “could have an adverse impact” on rehabilitation. He then directed the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) to develop rules for local agencies to ensure in-person jail visits would not be banned.
The nine-member Board voted 7-2 to adopt the new regulations, which Chairwoman Linda Penner said drew “a line in the sand” against the trend of replacing face-to-face visits with video calls while still trying to control costs for existing jails. For example, the rule prevents sheriffs from establishing new rules that prevent in-person visits, but does not force them to revise existing rules that do so.
“The board simply landed at the best compromise landing spot that it could,” said BSCC executive director Kathleen Howard.
The fight to preserve in-person visits at local jails comes amid a push by sheriffs throughout California and the rest of the country to end the practice altogether in favor of video calls, which can be conducted either remotely or on-site from a videoconferencing terminal at the facility.
While remote video calls offer an alternative for families who cannot travel to see their loved ones in person, such calls are not cheap – usually costing between $5 and $15 for a 20-minute session. Some jails have moved to on-site video calls, which are offered at no cost, though they still require families to travel to the jail.
Sheriffs tout the reduced costs of constructing and staffing space for in-person visits, as well as a reduction in contraband that results from video calls. They insist that video calling provides increased public safety.
Prisoner advocates – such as the ACLU, Prison Law Office, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice – counter that video calls are not the same as face-to-face visitation, and that prisoners who receive in-person visits have fewer infractions and lower recidivism rates, and are more likely to find employment upon their release. The benefits of in-person visits to families with children cannot be duplicated by video calls, advocacy groups wrote in a joint letter to the BSCC.
Of California’s 58 counties, ten have at least one jail with no face-to-face visits – the same number of counties in which jails are under construction with no space for in-person visitation. The BSCC’s new rules do not apply to the latter facilities.
State Senator Holly Mitchell, the lawmaker who introduced Senate Bill 1157, was critical of the Board’s new rules, saying they did not go far enough. She called BSCC director Howard’s comments that the new regulations adopted the focus of her vetoed legislation “curious at best.”
Fellow Senator Nancy Skinner promised that two prison oversight committees on which she sits would hold hearings to determine “appropriate next steps” to address the parts of the BSCC’s new rules she felt failed to go far enough to preserve in-person jail visits – especially in light of efforts to move lower-level offenders from state prisons to county lockups. Those changes were supposedly motivated by a desire to keep such prisoners closer to their families, she said, wondering why the state would “create a circumstance where their families cannot visit them.”
Video calling “is not the same as a family visit,” Senator Skinner insisted.
The California State Sheriffs’ Association was the sole opponent to Senate Bill 1157, but spokesman Cory Salzillo took no position on the Board’s new rules.
“This does take some sheriffs’ autonomy away but it also strikes a careful balance,” she stated. “We understand it’s a sensitive issue.”
Sources: www.sfgate.com, www.latimes.com, www.usnews.com, www.abc10.com
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