Digital technology that has changed so much is going to jail - not to be punished, but to bring the same ambivalent "progress" it has brought to many industries and personal life.
Jails and prisons across New Jersey are adopting video visitation for family members and friends. That's a good option, but inadequate as their only access.
At the Cape May County jail, a pioneer of video visits starting in 2011, visitors sit at one of three video terminals and chat with the live image of the inmate inside.
The county charges the inmates or their visitors $10 for 20 minutes of such video chat, and pockets half of that. The county's sheriff, Gary Schaffer, says video visitation makes security easier for his staff, since the inmates don't need to be moved from within the secured part of the jail. He said video visits are responsible for reducing assaults on jail officers from nearly 30 a year to almost none.
For these reasons, apparently, Cape May County has eliminated the ability of families, friends and others to visit an inmate in person. All "visits" are limited to seeing each other on a computer screen.
Other institutions have adopted video visits as an option, giving visitors and inmates the choice of video chat or actually seeing each other.
Warden Robert Balicki, whose Cumberland County jail offers both visitation methods, has seen the benefits. "I think you should still have in-person visits," he told The Press recently. "The video visit is not the same. You can give them a hug before the visit and after the visit."
As video visitation has spread to more than 500 prisons and jails in 43 states, complaints have grown from families who say prohibiting seeing an inmate in person weakens bonds that need to be maintained - especially with young children.
The U.S. Department of Justice is starting to address the shift in visitation. Its National Institute of Corrections issued a report in December urging jails and prisons considering video visitation to "consider the proven benefits of traditional visiting, the limitations of video visiting, the needs of each facility, the goals of the correctional administration, and the laws, regulations and political realities of the region. Video visiting cannot replicate seeing someone in-person, and it is critical for a young child to visit his or her incarcerated parent in person to establish a secure attachment."
In his preface to that report, institute acting Director Robert M. Brown Jr. said correctional facilities should "introduce video visiting as a resource, ideally in concert with in-person visitation."
This newspaper agrees with the developing federal view that video visitation makes a good addition to the ways inmates can stay connected with the world to which they'll return, but only as another option. Families, friends and attorneys must have the ability to see an inmate in person for communication that is unimpeded by technology. That's not only fair to the people involved, but serves the important societal interest in the rehabilitation of inmates.
Given that limiting families and inmates to only teleconferences might be more convenient, safer and even money-making for correctional institutions, this decision can't be left to local officials. We urge New Jersey legislators to enact a law ensuring visitors will continue to have the ability to see inmates in person.