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Nothing personal

If Mecklenburg County inmates want to enjoy being up close and personal with their loved ones, it appears that they are going to have to stop coming to jail.

For some time, the county’s two jails have used video technology in lieu of face-to-face visits, something the sheriff’s office says increases jail safety while reducing staffing issues.

But not everyone is feeling the love.

In a recent letter to the Charlotte Observer, one detainee said that the newfangled system leaves “a lot to be desired.” The picture and sound are often “quirky,” wrote the 65-year-old man, who is awaiting trial on arson charges. He added that visits are sometimes held near loud-talking inmates, which isn’t conducive to quality family time.

Under the old system, inmates were escorted to a room and seated across from their visitors, separated by a glass partition, and spoke through telephone receivers. Now, they use a Skype-style setup that provides convenience and security, but lacks personality.

As with just about anything, there are proponents and opponents, pros and cons.

Video visits are good because: Inmates can’t receive contraband through the phone. Inmates can “visit” any day, rather than a single designated day. Officers don’t need to move inmates out of their housing units, minimizing risk. Visitors, especially children, are not subjected to a jail environment.

They are bad because: Video screens don’t allow the same level of intimacy between inmates and visitors. Inmates may not feel comfortable speaking freely with their loved ones, since the visits are recorded. Technology is always subject to glitches and snafus.

Mecklenburg County public defender Kevin Tully said that video visits contributes to the “systematic dehumanization” of people, calling the new system “a giant step in the wrong direction.”

The company that installed the technology inside the jails calls it an “effective complement” to, rather than a replacement for, traditional visiting methods. At least one county, Durham, does employ video visits to supplement in-person visits, but for the jails that use the system exclusively — citing safety, security, and convenience — it seems as though they are firm in their decision.

So, for the folks in those counties — Mecklenburg, Wake, and Lincoln, to name a few — if you enjoy high-definition, high-quality human interaction with those you care about, stay far, far away from the bowels of your local jails.

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