How close does a video call come to replicating actual human contact? What if that call is the only contact you have with the outside world while in prison—does that change the calculus at all? Apparently so, for inmates in the District of Columbia Department of Corrections.
The department's installed 108 video units, split between its jails and a Video Visitation Center at the District of Columbia General Hospital. That seems like a net positive on the surface, but it's actually a contentious topic:
The District of Columbia made the switch on July 25 to video visitation, a growing trend in the corrections field. To proponents, the video systems provide a more convenient, safer, thriftier alternative to in-person visits. Some jurisdictions even make money, by charging for the video visits. Critics, including prisoner advocates and corrections officers concerned with how prisoners fare once they are released, fear that the video visits allow less meaningful contact with family and could hurt inmates' morale.
Those concerns seem valid. Video calling just isn't the same as talking in person, even if you're separated by glass. Eye contact, subtle body language, a glance off to the side—what's over there what's off screen?—nothing is quite whole on video chat. And maybe that's fine when you're a long distance relationship and can chat on IM and phone up every night and sext each other into oblivion. But for inmates with limited visits that can cost $30 per hour even by video call, it's got to be pretty hard. [NY Times]
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