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Massachusetts County Plans To Make Video Screens Only Way For Incarcerated To See Loved Ones

“We just cannot have a policy that only allows people to see their loved ones on a video screen.”

Andrea James, the founder of Families for Justice as Healing, is not happy with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Department’s plans to end in-person visitation at the Bristol County House of Corrections. If the project is implemented, video conferencing will be the only means of communication for inmates and their families.

Instead of seeing family members on the other side of a Plexiglass window, visitors will arrive to a trailer on the other side of the razor wire fence surrounding the jail, where the video conferencing, set up by Securus Technologies, awaits.

“It’s a big burden on visitors,” said Susan Tordella, an organizer with the Massachusetts nonprofit organization End Mass Incarceration Together.

Tordella added making it harder for inmates to see their friends and family seems counterproductive because research shows “the more visitors, the more successful reentry into society.”

One of the stated reasons Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson wants video visitation is to cut down on the flow of drugs into the jail. But Tordella pointed out this is a shortsighted move. The most likely culprits for importation of contraband are not found in the visitors’ room. Rather, they are employed by the jail.

“I understand that correctional facilities are always concerned about contraband,” said Tordella. “But they’re reluctant to recognize that it usually is correctional officers bringing it in.”

The project has yet to be implemented, according to staff at the jail reached by phone. A corrections officer at the switchboard, who did not give her name, told Shadowproof that visitors were still allowed to come into the jail to see their loved ones in person — for now.

But the plans are still in motion, and the project has activists in the area and across the state concerned — especially since Sheriff Hodgson is not seen as a trustworthy caretaker of the jail population.

“We want Hodgson to be supervised,” said Marlene Pollock, an organizer with the Coalition for Social Justice. “These people [in the jail] need to be cared for.”

Pollock said she and the organization’s other volunteers have taken testimony from people incarcerated at the Bristol County Jail, and the inmates all say the same thing. The food is almost inedible. The canteen only contains soup.

And that’s if you can afford it. Many of the inmates at the jail are indigent or come from poor families that are unable to provide their loved ones cash for the canteen. Medical care is “almost non-existent.”

The facilities are overcrowded, old, dark, and dreary. It is easy to be put in segregation or solitary confinement. Most inmates are not even serving time but are awaiting trial and too poor to make bail.

Hodgson, who was not made available for comment to Shadowproof, described his criminal justice philosophy in a 2013 local NBC report on the jail.

“Come here, you focus on the things you need to focus on,” said Hodgson, “then we can have you leave here with more tools in your toolbox than you came with.”

Adding another barrier to the outside world would be counterproductive to that stated mission. Ben Forman, research director at MassINC, a Massachusetts think tank, said access to care and help can stop recidivism, and that visitation is a part of that process. It is part of being whole and healthy.

“I think we know this is a good thing for inmates,” Forman said. “And there should be standards the corrections department is held to in regard to making people feel welcome and respected when they visit.”

The real reason for the change to video visitation, according to some activists, might be money.

“It used to be just telephone companies making profits bilking family members,” explained Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project. “Then corporations realized there was a  whole other opportunity make more money.”

Ahrens told Shadowproof that schemes like the one in Bristol County usually involve a financial “kickback” in the form of commissions to jail and prison administrations that use them. These kickbacks are generally unregulated and provided with no strings attached, making them appealing to authorities.

“It’s money they can spend anyway they want,” explained Ahrens.

But it will come at a very real cost, said James. Over 100 incarcerated women in Bristol County are “trying desperately not to lose the ability to see, touch, and speak directly with their children.

“Who knows what effect it has on children and youth development” not to see their parents in person, said Forman.

Ahrens is hopeful the plans will be thwarted because video visitation could have ramifications throughout the state.

In Ahrens’ view, it won’t stop with Bristol County. It will be a sign of a bad trend for the rest of the region.

“As somebody who has been doing this for years,” said Ahrens, “I can tell you that every bad trend that begins in one jail will go to other jail.”

 

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Eoin Higgins

Eoin Higgins

Eoin Higgins is a journalist from western Massachusetts.