Visitation was packed. The line to get in barely moved. Tired moms chased screaming kids across the parking lot. Angry girlfriends, denied entry for wearing spandex and sleeveless shirts, stormed off in profanity-laced tirades. A grandfather passed out from heat exhaustion. After a two-hour wait, it was finally my mom’s turn to be frisked, then led through a gauntlet of metal detectors, cell phone detectors, and drug dogs. The guard who escorted her rolled her eyes and smiled, “Come on, video visits!” As if my sweet, 70-year-old mother, who has spent every Saturday for the last 12 years eating microwave food, walking laps, and playing cards with her wayward, knuckle-headed son would share this longing for dystopian efficiency over human contact. She does not. No prisoner or visitor wants this.
It’s coming, though. Not only because these contact visits — which have been standard operating procedure in the Florida Department of Corrections for the last 150 years — are now suddenly deemed a “security threat,” but mainly because there’s a market for it. Companies like Keefe and Access Correctional stand to make millions when video visits become the new normal in Florida prisons.
Most county jails have already made the transition with little or no resistance, but there’s a glaring difference: County inmates are either awaiting trial or serving minuscule sentences. Prisoners in the department of corrections are serving anywhere between a year and natural life. Imagine never being able to hold your daughter again, or give your little boy a piggyback ride, or kiss your wife, or hug your mom. You can argue that the prisoner deserves this. But do his children? His wife? His parents? Families serve sentences together. These types of policies have collateral consequences that extend far beyond the inmate.
John Cacioppo, PhD, a psychologist and social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago studies loneliness and he’s found that feeling socially isolated disrupts not only our brain but also our endocrine and immune systems. Over the long term, lack of human contact can be as damaging to our health and well-being as obesity and smoking (Men’s Health, Jan/Feb 2015).
In this era of Skype and Facetime, my words probably ring trivial. Old fashioned, even. Especially to the millennial who maintains several relationships over a mobile device. That’s not my world. There was no such thing as a smart phone when I was arrested. Many of my fellow prisoners were locked up before the advent of the internet.
Again, who cares? Outside of prisoners and their families, no one. And let’s be honest, the average inmate’s family is not exactly affluent, connected, or politically powerful. The Florida Department of Corrections knows this and passes its draconian rules with little resistance, as I’m sure they’ll do with this one.
To mangle a Leonard Pitts quote: Things like this will continue until the families of prisoners understand themselves as a constituency and organize their voices accordingly.