Banning real jail visits punishes inmates’ families

The new Placer County jail allows inmates to speak to visitors with a phone and see them through glass, but some California jails have banned in-person visits.
The new Placer County jail allows inmates to speak to visitors with a phone and see them through glass, but some California jails have banned in-person visits. Sacramento Bee file

The last time Le’Char Toki saw her husband face to face was Thanksgiving 2014 when she drove their three children to the Solano County Claybank Detention Facility for a visit. As her 2-year-old son and his father pressed their hands together against the window between them, she felt her husband’s laughter through the vibrations in the glass.

But in December 2014, Solano County banned in-person visits at Claybank and replaced them with video calls. Similar bans have been instituted at jails across the state. Nine counties prohibit in-person visits; nine others plan to renovate or build jails with no space for in-person visits, even with an unprecedented jail-building boom.

At Claybank and most other jails that have banned in-person visits, families and friends now have two options to “see” their incarcerated loved ones: Those with a webcam, credit card and high-speed internet access can call from home, paying as much as $1 a minute. Others must travel to the jail and use a grainy video screen.

The Legislature has a chance to right this wrong. Senate Bill 1157, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, would require jails using video calls to also provide in-person visitation. The bill has garnered bipartisan support, was passed by the Senate on June 1 and is set for a vote on the Assembly floor on Thursday.

Nearly 14,000 Californians have signed a petition supporting the bill. In-person visitation is an integral part of strengthening family connections between inmates and their loved ones, especially children. About 856,000 children have a parent behind bars, on parole or on probation, which has been linked to impaired social and emotional development.

The U.S. Department of Justice also found that inmates who get in-person visits have fewer discipline problems, are more likely to get a job when released, and are less likely to commit other crimes. Just one visit has been shown to decrease recidivism.

Opponents of the bill argue that in-person visitation increases the risk of contraband being smuggled into jails and harm to correctional officers. However, one study found a 41 percent increase in overall disciplinary incidents after video calls replaced in-person visitation. Those favoring a ban on visitation claim that video systems allow for more frequent communication with incarcerated family members, but again the data show otherwise.

So why are jails replacing in-person visitation with video calls? Money is one motivator.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission capped phone rates in jails and prisons after finding exorbitant charges. Scrambling to find new ways to profit off families, companies began marketing video call systems, offering commissions on video calls that have no rate limit. Some companies even require that jails ban in-person visits, leaving video systems as the only option.

California must stop corporate greed from making it harder for family members to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones. We must pass SB 1157 now.

Lynn Wu is a staff attorney and Juvenile Justice Policy and Projects Manager at the Prison Law Office. She can be contacted at