Cook: Now you see me, now you don't

Cook: Now you see me, now you don't

January 10th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It sounds so promising - video visitation for Hamilton County Jail inmates.

Not unlike Skype, prisoners and visitors could chat over Internet screens rather than face-to-face, with only shatterproof glass between them. Video monitors in the jail would link the incarcerated with family and friends on the outside who could reserve times to talk with inmates from laptops or phones anywhere.

No more long lines in the jail lobby. No more transporting dangerous inmates from one cell block, down the elevator, into the visitation room and back again.

It's also a money-maker: Folks would pay 60 cents for each minute of video visitation, a rate that would generate an estimated $60,000 in the first year and double that in the second and third. (Anyone who comes to the jail could video-chat for free; the 60-cent rate is charged for visits from places outside the building).

Sounds good, doesn't it?

Wednesday, the Hamilton County Commission will vote on accepting a proposal to install a video visitation system in the county jail.

And they should vote no.

Why?

Because the idea is a distraction -- the policy equivalent of changing the channel -- that encourages us to forget the real goal of incarceration.

It's not to make money off the incarcerated. The Florida company offering to install the video system would keep the first $42,000 made from video visits and then 70 percent annually thereafter while continuing to own the equipment.

Seventy percent is a racket, an extension of the prison industrial complex. Prisons and jails are supposed to correct and reform, not make millionaires out of corporate bosses who have no financial interest in ever, ever seeing the number of incarcerated do anything but grow.

Proponents of video visitation claim it will reduce long lines of family members wishing to see their locked-up loved ones. How about we instead figure out how to stop locking so many people up?

Video visitation furthers the isolation and withdrawal of prisoners from society. It turns prisoners and our county jail -- located in the heart of downtown -- into a virtual island that we can't physically access.

If you've ever visited someone in jail, you realize how deeply valuable this is. Mothers see sons and their bodies; how they walk, their scars, the light in their eyes and whether it's vanishing. Spouses are inches away from loved ones. Children put their hands to the glass as their fathers do the same from the other side.

Inmates with frequent visitors are less likely to re-offend, studies show.

"Inmates who were visited in prison had a 13 percent lower risk of recidivism than inmates who were not visited in prison," reads a Minnesota Dept. of Corrections report.

The U.S. Dept. of Justice even encourages inmate visitation, in order to "maintain the morale of the inmate and to develop closer relationships between the inmate and family members or others in the community," a policy document states.

It's true that such a video system could increase the frequency and number of inmate visits, which would increase morale and decrease the likelihood of re-offending. And if it saves money for the jail while keeping guards and prisoners safer and more secure, then good. Wonderful.

Just implement it partially. Hamilton County commissioners, keep some visitation booths open for face-to-face encounters; don't let video visitation become the only option people have.

Then tackle the larger issue: That the Hamilton County Jail has become our region's substitute mental health hospital.

A terrible number of inmates are classified as mentally ill, which is a drain on guards, expenses (medicine, for example) and bed space that should go to real criminals, not sick people.

So jail officials try and relocate them in appropriate health facilities. Sometimes they travel across the state to do so. Last month alone, jail employees transported 125 inmates to facilities near and far. (Five transports on Christmas Day alone). They drove more than 3,000 miles and logged 231 manhours doing so, Chief Deputy Allen Branum said.

That's not their job nor is it the jail's. You want to free up manpower, reduce guard stress, save money and restore the true aim of the Hamilton County jail (it's not to be a mental health hospital) then County Commission, begin to deal with this.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.