On any given day, approximately 2.6 million children (or about 1 in every 33) have a parent in jail or prison. Until relatively recently, few people paid attention to what happens to children when their parents are incarcerated, but as the number of parents in jails and prisons grew during the 1980s and 1990s there began to be an appreciation that incarcerating parents can have a profound and enduring effect on their children.
It is not easy for children to visit their incarcerated parents, particularly if their parents are in prison rather than in local jails. A majority of parents in prison are housed more than 100 miles from their children. Distance, along with the high costs of transportation, food, lodging, and the time involved make it difficult for families to take children to visit their parents. Roughly half of all parents in prison (59% of those in state prison and 45% in federal prison) have never had a visit from any of their children.
As advocacy groups and community organizations are pushing to remove barriers to children visiting their incarcerated parents, changes are occurring in correctional visitation practices: jails and prisons are shifting to video visitation – visitation using real-time video conferencing technology similar to Skype. Correctional facilities have been using video systems since the 1990s. Based on interviews with system vendors, criminal justice officials, legal experts, and news reports, the New York Times estimates that correctional facilities in at least 20 states already have video capability or have plans to adopt the technology.
The benefits of video visitation for correctional facilities are described as reducing the risk of contraband entering facilities, cost savings because fewer staff are needed to oversee visits and, in some cases, increased revenue from fees paid by inmates or visitors. In Idaho, Sheriff Gary Raney of the Ada County Sheriff’s Office claims that the virtual visitation system put in place there will have produced over $2 million in revenue over the course of two years. The companies that provide the equipment and software that correctional facilities need to retool for and manage video visitation are also benefiting. In fact, these companies have been referred to as “the newest player in the prison-industrial complex.”
But, what about the 2.6 million children whose parents are in jail or prison? Are they benefiting? Possibly. Children may benefit from video visitation if it increases opportunities for them to communicate with their parents. But video visitation is not a substitute for in-person contact visits, particularly for infants and young children.
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