Local

Mecklenburg had ended in-person jail visits. Why a new sheriff is bringing them back.

Fulfilling a campaign promise, new Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden will restore in-person visits with jail inmates, starting temporarily this week.

Face-to-face visits between inmates and family members and friends had ended under former sheriff Irwin Carmichael in favor of visits done solely via video monitors. McFadden, as a candidate, had said video should not be the only option for jail visits.

In-person visits will be allowed temporarily this week, Monday through New Year’s Eve, until a full policy goes into effect, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

The new policy will give visitors the option of face-to-face or video visits, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Tonya Rivens said by email Monday. In-person visits will be conducted as they previously had, she said, through glass dividers.

“Allowing our residents to stay connected to family and loved ones through in-person visits improves public safety,” McFadden said in a statement. “This simple step alone has been shown to significantly lower the chances that a person will commit another crime after they get out. It also reduces the chance a person will commit an infraction inside the jail, which could adversely impact their release. In addition, it improves mental health outcomes and strengthens family units and community ties.”

McFadden cited studies showing that inmates who are allowed personal contact with family and friends are less likely to go back behind bars after their release.

Mecklenburg joined a growing number of North Carolina jails that have ended in-person visits in favor of video in 2016.

The sheriff’s office, under Carmichael, said video offers safety and staffing benefits. Detention officers no longer had to move inmates to meet visitors because video stations were installed in each jail housing unit. They also didn’t have to worry about visitors slipping in contraband.

Video also allows more flexibility in visitation times. For a fee, visitors can view inmates online or buy extra visiting time.

Inmate advocates, and the correction industry’s own trade association, have said video should be deployed in addition to personal visits — not replace them. But many county jails, including Mecklenburg’s, have ended in-person visits altogether once they install video systems.

Inmates and their families complain that video technology is often glitchy. Digital connections are sometimes spotty, they say, producing dark images and poor audio. And it can be challenging to hold conversations in noisy jail pods.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a prison-reform advocacy group, has criticized the communications companies that install and profit from the video visitation systems for exploiting a captive audience.

Mecklenburg County’s video-only policy took effect in October 2016, after the county contracted for video services by Virginia-based GTL. The company paid the system’s $1.7 million installation costs but keeps the revenues it earns from paid, online visits.

Under Carmichael, the sheriff’s office tweaked the video-only policy in February to allow inmates two free video visits a week, up from the one weekly visit previously allowed.

During the campaign, McFadden and candidate Antoine Ensley said that change wasn’t enough.

“Human contact is important,” McFadden said at the time. “It’s important for these men and women to see their loved ones.”

In addition to in-person visits this week, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office said it will also allow free online visits for inmates on Monday and Christmas Day. Those visits normally cost $12.50 for 25 minutes.

Inmates will also be allowed two free five-minute phone calls through New Year’s Eve.

Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.
  Comments