We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Prison systems around the country have embraced video visitation as a low-cost, high security way to connect inmates with their family and friends. But prisoner rights advocates were alarmed when the DC Department of Corrections recently shifted to video as an alternative to traditional visitation and eliminated all in-person visits. We explore the benefits and potential drawbacks of video visitation.
- Ivy Finkenstadt Staff Attorney, DC Prisoners' Rights Project, Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
- Thomas Faust Director, DC Department of Corrections
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, is clicking like on Facebook protected speech? One judge says no. But, first, security pat-downs, the clang of metal doors, cubicles with thick Plexiglas separating prisoners from visitors. If you've never visited someone in prison, you probably have images from movies and television about what it's like. But that image may soon be replaced with a new reality coming to prisons around the country.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMany now include video visitation via computer or closed-circuit TV. Families can see and talk to prisoners virtually from visitor centers and, in some places, from libraries, community centers and, one day, even from their home computers. The D.C. Department of Corrections recently announced its shift to video visits.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhat's unusual about the District's new policy is that it's replacing face-to-face visitation entirely. There are benefits, but it seems there are drawbacks, too. Joining us to talk about it is Thomas Faust. Tom Faust is the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections. Tom Faust, thank you for joining us.
MR. THOMAS FAUSTThank you. It's good to be here.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Ivy Finkenstadt, staff attorney for the D.C. Prisoners' Rights Project with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Ivy Finkenstadt, thank you for joining us.
MS. IVY FINKENSTADTThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation that you, too, can join at 800-433-8850. What do you think of video visitation for prisons? Have you ever visited a jail or prison? What was your experience? 800-433-8850. Tom Faust, I'd like you to start by explaining a little bit about how the corrections system works here in the District of Columbia. D.C. no longer has a prison. Lorton Correctional Facility, which was based in Fairfax County, closed in 2001. So what is the corrections system that we now have here?
FAUSTYes. The corrections system here in the District is essentially a local jail system. As you mentioned, Kojo, the District no longer has the Lorton facility, which, in essence, served as the prison facility similar that you would have in a state, let's say, Maryland or Virginia, where you would have local jails or county jails, and then you have a state prison system. So, now, with the way the District works, is we have the District of Columbia Department of Corrections.
FAUSTAnd then our prison system in lieu of a state system is the Federal Bureau of Prisons. So those individuals who get convicted and sentenced to long felony terms and long terms of prison are then transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and are transferred to facilities under the federal government.
NNAMDIAs we said, most of us have images in our head from television, but can you walk us through what a visit to the D.C. jail was like before the implementation of video visitation?
FAUSTA visit to the D.C. jail wasn't a -- before video visitations, certainly, it wasn't necessarily always a pleasant experience in the sense that usually there are long lines involved, long wait periods for visits. You have to go -- again, because you're coming into a secured facility, it's necessary to have security procedures, which include, you know, relatively invasive pat-down searches and running visitors through searches and also through metal detectors and other devices such as that.
FAUSTSo it's a long process to go through. So, typically, a visitor would have to endure long lines, would have to endure searches, and that would include, you know, if they came with a child for the visit. Children would have to necessarily be searched. And so it could be a process where you could show up and -- for a visit, and you may be there for literally several hours to get through that process.
NNAMDIOn a technical aspect of it, if there is Plexiglas between the visitor and the inmate in the previous visitation process, why was there still a need for searches and pat-downs?
FAUSTBecause, again, the individuals are still -- to get to where the visiting takes place, you have to go into the secured facility itself.
NNAMDIAnd that's no longer necessary in the video.
FAUSTThat's no longer necessary under video visitation, so there is always the potential for introduction of contraband. So anybody coming in the facility visit or otherwise has to go through that search process.
NNAMDI...before we go to video visitation, what do we know about the importance of family visits in general for prisoners?
FINKENSTADTFamily visits are incredibly important for visitors, and at the D.C. jail, it is a short window for many people who are pretrial, as you said, or maybe pre-sentence or are anticipating a parole revocation who will be going out to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. So it is sometimes a pretty short window of time, few months where they -- family members may have access to that person before they go out to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
FINKENSTADTAnd that is the primary reason that advocates in the community feel that this particular policy of completely replacing video phones with in-person visits is detrimental. In terms of studies, the more -- or I'm sorry. The more family contact a person can have prepares them for re-entry when they return to the community. And I know that Director Faust has a strong background in re-entry and has stated to the community and to the District that that is a priority for him. So anticipating that, the re-entry begins when somebody goes into the jail. This is a step backward, I feel.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. In case you're just joining us, we're talking about the policy of video-visitation-only in D.C. jails, and we're talking with Tom Faust -- he is the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections -- and Ivy Finkenstadt, who is a staff attorney for the D.C. Prisoners' Rights Project with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
NNAMDIYou can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Tom Faust, as of July 25, visiting is now done virtually via a video screen. Can you describe that experience?
FAUSTCertainly, it's -- experience now -- first off, all visits are pre-scheduled. So if you're a family member or a friend, you can either call a 800 number that is available or go online and register for a visit. So, for instance, now -- where before you would show up at the jail -- and, again, you may have to wait several hours not knowing when your visit is. It was a very much an imposition on working families and working members because you'd have to take off from work. You might have to miss half a day. Now, you can literally -- you schedule your visit.
FAUSTSo your visit is at 11 o'clock in the morning. You show up at 10:45. Your visit starts at exactly 11 o'clock. And you know you have a -- there's a certainty as to -- that you're going to have your visit, that you're not competing with others, that it's pre-scheduled. And then you come in to -- the visitation center is located on the grounds of the D.C. General Hospital complex, which is just adjacent to the D.C. jail. And we have a dedicated center there.
FAUSTWhere you come in, there's a comfortable waiting room where you can wait if you're there early, seats available, and then you go into -- we have 50 booths, visitation booths set up where you come in and then make that visitation visit. And I can -- I would say -- I would like to add, too, I completely agree with what Ivy said as far as family visits are important.
FAUSTAnd that's one of the things -- the fact that we recognize family visits are important, we felt that with video visitation we're increasing the access that families now have. We're increasing the hours. We're increasing the days. Visitation is now available on weekends, which it never was before. So, yes, it is -- that is important. And through video visitation, I feel that we both increase the access to families, and we increase the convenience.
NNAMDIYou also are doubling the number of visitors who can visit in any given time.
FAUSTOur capability, yes. We were able to handle about 200 -- up to about 200 visitors, during visiting hours, a day at the -- in the old system going through the jail. Now, we can handle about 400, so, again, increasing the ease of access and doubling the numbers.
NNAMDIAnd I'm assuming there was a cost factor in this decision. Obviously, you'll be cutting down on your staff needs because you no longer need staff to bring prisoners in and out and pat-down visitors, et cetera, so you're obviously saving some money here.
FAUSTVery definitely. There was definitely a cost factor there. The company that installed these units by the name of Global Tel*Link, a partnership, they provided all the hardware and infrastructure components without charge to the District. And then we're saving about a 60 percent savings in our staffing, again, because we're not having to have the large movement of inmates that's necessary to move them out of the housing units and up into visiting.
FAUSTSo we can reassign those staff back to very more critical security assignments, so there's definitely both a staff savings and a security benefit, again, because we're cutting down the unnecessary movement of inmates, and we're also cutting down on the potential introduction of contraband.
NNAMDIWe have a lot of callers on the line. You mentioned the benefits. I think they want to mention the disadvantages of having this kind of system. But before we go there, could you talk a little bit about where this initiative came from? I know that you only joined the department last fall. But where did the initiative originate, and who was consulted?
FAUSTWell, the initiative has really been coming on now for several years, almost three years, as you said before I came on, and it was, again, as to looking at why to implement it. The driving force behind it was how to increase access, increase the convenience, make it more accessible to more people, and I would add, you know, that the next step to this is to bring this technology and then put it into also local libraries and community centers around the community so that, in addition to the visitation center, there can be other areas where people can more easily, again, come in to visit.
NNAMDIMore specifically, Ivy Finkenstadt, was the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs consulted about this, and if so, what did you say?
FINKENSTADTThe lawyers committee was not consulted specifically, but there was testimony given at the Department of Corrections oversight hearings in February about this issue. And advocates from Returning Citizens United submitted testimony about the issue, particularly, again, the fact that families are separated by long distances when people go to the BOP, but also that prisoners at the jail are lacking in some basic necessities as it is.
FINKENSTADTAnd money was allocated towards renovating the D.C. General campus to facilitate this process rather than renovating the visiting room, the phones that connect the families through the Plexiglas and possibly even contraband prevention methods. So those types of things were brought to the Department of Corrections' attention. I would also just like to say that the advocacy community is not at all technology adverse.
FINKENSTADTI want to make sure that people understand that we would love to have this technology operating alongside visits for in-person. In particular, I noticed that the Department of Corrections is also implementing this for juveniles held at the Correctional Treatment Facility. Those individuals are people ages 16 through 18.
NNAMDIAnd the Correctional Treatment Facility is on the same campus as the D.C. jail.
FINKENSTADTCorrect, along with the general hospital. All of those places are right within the same area. So this is being applied to teenagers who are under the age of 18, as well as to adults. And imagine if you are serving the beginning of a longer sentence and you are 16, 17 years old, and your only contact with your mom or your family members is through a video screen for several years and that person is literally 500 yards away, and you can't see them in person.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We'll start with Eric in Washington, D.C. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICHi. Thank you taking my call. I wanted to call to provide, I guess, some anecdotal evidence to support what Ivy has been saying about the benefits of personal family visits. I've been incarcerated in some different facilities and had different types of visitor contact. And while I think that the video could be a great addition to personal visits, excuse me. I'm really concerned about it as a replacement for the -- for human, you know, just human nature and things like that.
ERICPrisons are, I think, generally dehumanizing and humiliating places, and allowing for personal, positive human contact is really beneficial not only to the people on the inside but for the community on the outside. You know, if you treat people on the inside like animals, when they get out, you know, how are they going to act? And I think that not allowing for the possibility of positive human interaction is not going to be beneficial to the communities in the long run, in addition, obviously, to the prisoner.
NNAMDIEric, what was -- what were your experiences while you were incarcerated of having visitors talk to you on a telephone through a Plexiglas screen? And how do you see that as being significantly different from talking to you from a video screen?
ERICWell, I guess I'd put them on a spectrum. Having someone face-to-face would be more beneficial. I've had in-person, you know, visits where we could, you know, hug and talk and touch each other...
ERIC...and then I've also had through the Plexiglas and then also, you know, through a phone. And it's significantly different because it's just the more you get removed, the less personal and human that interaction is. It's better than nothing, for sure. Talking to my mom on the phone was better than not talking to her. But when I, you know, saw her, my siblings in person, that was a whole different level. And so, like I said, the further you remove that person from the interaction, the less human it is.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call. Tom Faust, Ivy Finkenstadt has credited you with having some expertise on the re-entry process. What do you say in response to somebody like our last caller, who says, that doesn't really help me to reintegrate into society if I'm on a video screen someplace?
FAUSTWell, again, I go back. I think the increased access, doubling the capacity -- what, in fact, we're doing is making more contact with your family possible, not less contact possible. And I think it's very important in this is also to recognize the fundamental difference. As you mentioned in the beginning, Kojo, about D.C. no longer having a prison system, the fundamental difference in a prison being long term versus our jail system being very short term, the median length of stay of our inmates in our system is 27 days.
FAUSTSo I think it's incumbent upon us to say, during those 27 days as the median number of length of stay, how can we get the most access and the most capacity for those people during that very limited time? Again, it's a very different situation when you're talking about someone who's been sent to prison for 10 or 20 years. I think video visitation may, in fact, not be the right choice for a long-term prison. But when we're taking about a population with a median stay of 27 days, I think it's important to get as much access packed into those 27 days as we can.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on line. We'll try to get to your call. If the lines are busy, you can send us email to email@example.com. You can go to out website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there, or join the conversation by sending us a tweet, @kojoshow. Do you think inmates have a right to in-person visits from family and friends? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation on video visitation in D.C. jails with Ivy Finkenstadt, who is a staff attorney for the D.C. Prisoners' Rights Project with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Thomas Faust. Tom Faust is the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections. We're calling -- we're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tom Faust, we know this is a growing trend. How many prisoners now do video visitation?
FAUSTThe number that I know of right now is there's somewhat over 200 facilities, at least at this point, around the country that are doing video visitation. And some of those jurisdictions around the country have also expanded now to the point allowing the video visitation even to take place from your home computer. So it is definitely something that is taking hold around the country. I'm personally aware of about slightly over 200 facilities around the country that are currently doing this.
NNAMDIAnd, Ivy, the benefits, as the director has pointed out, are relatively easy to quantify. But do we know if visiting with someone via a video screen has the same effect, positive or otherwise, as an in-person visit?
FINKENSTADTI haven't been able to quantify this or find any evidence of it. But in conversation with a reporter from The New York Times that reported on this recently this week, he mentioned that the Department of Justice, I believe, is actually looking at this issues to study it, to see if it, in fact, does have an impact one way or the other. And I just want to talk a little bit about one of the aspects of this that I found really interesting that Director Faust mentioned is that Global Tel*Link is the provider, installed this video system for no cost to the District, and I don't have much information about that.
FINKENSTADTBut Global Tel*Link is one of the primary telecommunications companies that provides phone services to prisons throughout the country and is essentially the subject of rulemaking with the FCC about the cost of phone calls to and from prison. So I'm wondering what is Global Tel*Link going to do with this? What is their motive here? What is -- how much is the contract for?
FINKENSTADTAnd is there a plan to charge the families in the future? That's a real fear on the part of the prisoners we've heard from and from the families that we've heard from.
NNAMDIIndeed, you passed me a note that is being apparently circulated among several of the inmates of the D.C. jail who feel that once this has pushed through, it will be approved, and then they'll charge your family and friends a fee to wait longer to see you on a computer screen for one 45-minute visit per week. Can you tell us, Tom Faust, do you know if there is a plan, an intention at some point for a fee charged for it?
FAUSTI absolutely know that there is no plan and there is no intention to ever charge for -- have a fee charged for this. In fact, what we will do is continue to work to make this even more accessible. As I said, we currently have the 50 visiting units available. Our next step is -- my next step is a plan to try to get this into some of the libraries in other areas in the District, and then there is technology currently.
FAUSTAnd as I said, some jurisdictions have already done this, and this would be my hope into the future that we could add the technology to this that's going to make it eventually available where a family member could literally sit at their desktop at home and have that -- also have that video visitation.
NNAMDIAs I said, we have a lot of callers who want to address this. Let me go to Yango in Washington, D.C. I only know of one Yango, and this is probably he.
MR. YANGO SAWYERYes. Good morning -- I mean, good afternoon, brother Kojo.
NNAMDIHey, Yango Sawyer. How are you?
SAWYERFantastic, man. You know, one – our concern is this here. You know, I've been in D.C. jail. You know, when we talk about contraband introduced, contraband is not introduced through visitation. It's impossible for you to give contraband through the Plexiglas. Contraband is introduced to the institution through some other entities. One of the things about visitation through the Plexiglas, Kojo, is the vibration that you feel from your family member who visits you.
SAWYERI mean, can you imagine, man, a child seeing his father through this Plexiglas? Put his hand up there, this father put his hand up there. And this child feels his father through the Plexiglas. It's impossible for that process to happen through a video conference. One of the things -- and it was talked about earlier -- that we had heard that their intention was to charge $9 per visit for individuals who came up in there. What we did, we did a lot of protest and hopefully, that's the reason why they postponed that -- eliminated that part of the process.
SAWYERWe found out that there are lot of wardens, past wardens from the Federal Bureau of Prison who were speaking out against this because they say that the family is the nucleus for the whole rehabilitation process. You know, and so when -- the closer you are to the family, the more that you begin to get in tune with re-entering into society. And so we look at video visitation, it's anti-personal. You know, and when I was in the jail, police didn't escort individual to the visitor. They went on their own.
SAWYERYou had a couple visits -- a couple of police there doing a process, assign them to their particularly booth, telephone, you know, et cetera. So when we talk about saving money, you talk about security, that's a false notion in terms of the reason why visitation is there. That's my comment.
NNAMDIOne of the reasons I went to Yango Sawyer is because I know he's -- has experience with this. He had -- also has experience beating me on the racquetball court, but that's a whole another story. While this is a good option -- we got a comment on our website that follows up on what Yango Sawyer was saying, "While this is a good option when a visitor cannot physically make it to the prison, having this be the only form of visitation is a terrible idea.
NNAMDI"Many prisoners have children who will never know or remember the human touch of their parent. There are numerous studies over many years that show the benefits and even necessity of real human contact and touch." What do you say in response to that, Tom Faust? Why is it the only form of visitation?
FAUSTWell, first of all, there are other forms of visitation as far as particular types of visits. Certainly, still there are face-to-face in-person visits that people have with their attorneys and with their legal counsels. We also continue to allow visits for clergy. So if there's a clergy that has a member of their church that they want to come to visit, that's available with a face-to-face visit. So we have certain categories of visits that are available.
FAUSTI would say again that some of the comments, you know, like dealing with the wardens of Federal Bureau of Prisons and all, I have to, I think, continue to reiterate that difference, that fundamental difference of someone being in a facility long term in a prison and someone being in a D.C. jail with again a medium stay of 27 days.
NNAMDIWell, the point that you seem to be making, Ivan -- Ivy Finkenstadt, about that is that the short-term nature of the stay in the D.C. jail could imply that visitors may not be seeing their loved ones again for a pretty long time. And in your view, that makes it even more important for them to be able to have some personal contact.
FINKENSTADTThat's correct. In fact, I spoke to a woman this morning who -- whose husband was, in fact, the person that gave me that flyer that I gave to you about the prisoners boycotting essentially the video visitation from their end. And she had been able to visit from April to August when her husband was at the jail two times a week. And the last time she saw him was July 19 at in-person visit. And then she scheduled an appointment for the video phone, and her husband chose not to take that.
FINKENSTADTAnd that was the last time she was able to see him before he's shipped to the BOP. So we're going from ability to see family two times a week in person to ability to see family once a week via video phone. And this person didn't have a bad experience making the appointment and didn't have a bad experience at the new video phone center. And our advocacy community is really not saying that you have to take it away. We're just saying, don't make it the only way that family members can see their loved ones.
NNAMDIYango, thank you very much for your call. I recall that, going back as far at the 1970s, Yango Sawyer had his own radio program advocating on behalf of inmates. Once again, Yango Sawyer, thank you for your call. Tom Faust, what would be the disadvantage of having both systems in place? Is that a cost factor?
FAUSTWell, it's certainly a cost factor, a staffing factor, a security factor to try to run two total visiting systems at one time. I'm not aware of a facility that would have total access of one style of visiting and total access of another.
FAUSTSo, again, I think clearly that the streamlining of visitation, the increased access, the ease of access, that those types of things, you know, opening up on Saturdays and Sundays for working families and friends, that all of those points outweigh -- there is no perfect system. But I think all of those points and the increased availability and access that people, in fact, have outweigh the other factors.
NNAMDIHere is Karen in Bethesda, Md. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENHello. Thank you for taking my call. I agree with a lot of the other points that has been raised about personal contact, so I won't revisit those. I just sort of wanted to bring up a few points with regarding to some of the statistics that had been talked about. So, for example, if you told us that the median time of stay is 27 days, well, median tends to represent the sort of middle point. I'd like to know what the range of time is that people stay...
NNAMDIIn D.C. jail. Well, let me have Tom Faust answer that immediately.
FAUSTSure. Well, again, when -- for a felony conviction, those persons would be transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. So typically our range -- I mean, to have a general statement of the range of people -- now, there's exceptions because of continuations of court dates or whatever, but essentially the range is 12 months. So -- and that's pretty typical nationwide around the country. A local jail facility, generally speaking, holds people with sentences up to 12 months. And then beyond the 12 months, typically again around the country, becomes your -- what you would consider prison time.
NNAMDIAnd I think we're running out of time very quickly. But the other point that Karen wanted to make, which I'll attempt quickly to make for her, is that video-only visits trade quality of visits for quantity of visits, that there can be more visits, but they are not of the same quality. Did you think about the effect of the quality of the visit when you were changing to this policy?
FAUSTOh. Well, absolutely, and the quality of the visit and also the quality of the experience of what they have to go through under the old system as opposed to the quality of the experience that they have to go through in the new system. And particularly, it was mentioned earlier about, you know, children seeing their family members in the jail. It's not a quality experience to have a 5-year-old have to go through a pat-down search and searching a child where that's not necessary now. So, absolutely, we looked at the -- both the quality and the quantity of the experience.
NNAMDIBottom line, as we move forward on this, Ivy Finkenstadt, is, what is the Washington Lawyers' Committee and other organizations like Returning Citizens United organization plan on doing about this?
FINKENSTADTWell, I have a couple of things that I'm going to follow up with when I get back to my office. I think number one is I'm going to do a FOIA request for information on the introduction of contraband through visitors to the Department of Corrections because we haven't got that data. I'd like the -- to have the director commit to tracking that. And if there is an actual reduction in contraband at the jail, it would be nice to know that.
FINKENSTADTBut the other thing is that this is sort of the first step of many for Director Faust, and this indicates that the Department of Corrections' culture of exclusion of the community is really not changing, or it's not really changing very fast. Historically, volunteers, advocates, other members of the community have asked and asked for more access to the jail and to our family and friends. So we're hopeful that, going forward, this will happen.
NNAMDIIvy Finkenstadt is staff attorney for the D.C. Prisoners' Rights Project with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Thomas Faust is the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections. Tom Faust, thank you for joining us.
FAUSTThank you very much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, is clicking like on Facebook protected speech? One judge says no. Let's hear what you say. You can start calling now, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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