Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick knows that prisoners in jail have a better chance of being productive members of society when they are released if they stay connected with their families while they are locked up. Even those without Fitzpatrick’s background in clinical psychology know from common sense that cutting someone off from in-person contact with their loved ones can be psychologically troubling.
Yet the Department of Corrections (DOC) is now proposing new visitation rules that would apply to all jails in the state and, unfortunately, they have little to do with common sense.
Under the new rules, jails could offer video visitation between prisoners and their family members and friends. Taken alone, that might not be a bad thing – as jails’ video technology advances, it could provide a way for those who might not otherwise be able to visit to do so.
The problem with video visitation technology, though, is that the private firms that provide the equipment to jails often “make a condition of their services that video visitation become the only form of visiting available,” David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, recently told The Daily Dot. “Adding video visitation as an optional supplement would be fine. Making it the only option available to people and charging for it is not fine,” Fathi said. “That stinks to high heaven. That’s not about security – that’s about maximizing your profit.”
Unfortunately, some Maine jails are moving toward banning in-person visitation in favor of video-only visits. And the new rues being proposed by DOC don’t come anywhere near close to ensuring that in-person visits will continue.
In the draft proposal, the DOC has so far penned only tepid language regarding access to meaningful visitation by family and loved ones. One rule, J.11, states: “Facilities should make provisions for contact visits when warranted.” Using the word “should” and the phrase “when warranted” make the rule so weak it is almost meaningless. Another rule, J.18, allows for video visitation in jails but makes no guarantee that jails cannot use video visitation technology to eliminate in-person visitation.
Studies have shown that prisoners who have in-person family visits while in jail are less likely to misbehave while in custody and are less likely to convicted of crimes after being released. Even the American Correctional Association, the 146-year-old organization that provides accreditation for Maine’s correctional facilities, supports in-person family visitations for prisoners.
The DOC can do better, and the ACLU of Maine told it so in both written testimony and at public hearing at the Department’s headquarters in Augusta on August 15. The Department will continue accepting written comment on the proposed changes until August 30.