Some county jails in New Jersey are no longer allowing visitors to have direct face-to-face contact with inmates.

Instead, they are offered a video visit.

Jails in Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Passaic and Salem are now using video visitation, and only Cumberland is still offering in-person visits as an option.

“This is an issue because one of the most important ways that incarcerated people can stay in touch with their families is via visitation,” said Peter Wagner, the executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative.

“Removing the traditional in-person visitation and replacing it with electronic chats gets in the way of that. It makes it harder for families to stay in touch. When you start to replace traditional visitation with a computer, that’s a problem.”

Wagner said jails are switching over to video visits because it’s easier for them.

“Instead of having to move incarcerated people from one part of their facility to another, they can just leave people in their housing units and have them talk via a computer screen,” he said.

“It’s really insulting to the families to make them drive to the jail, sit down in front of a computer screen and then talk to somebody who’s at the other half of the building.”

Karina Wilkinson, an advocate with the group New Jersey Phone Justice campaign, said several studies have been done that show “the best way to help incarcerated individuals with reentry is for them to maintain contact with their families and their community. It’s just there isn’t a substitute for face to face contact.”

She pointed out some people are also unhappy with the video visit system because the connection is terrible.

“It seems like they don’t have the bandwidth set up. The quality is so poor and the sound goes off. There’s delays and things like that.”

She said to do a video visit remotely, from your home or some other location, people are charged a fee.

“Each jail is different. They range from usually like $10 for 20 minutes (or) $12 for 20 minutes.”

She noted if visitors go to the jail for a video visit, they’ll get one or two free sessions a week.

Legislation that is pending in Trenton would make in-person visits a mandatory option, and cap what visitors could be charged for a video visit at 11 cents a minute.

She said a 2014 Department of Justice report found benefits to offering video visits as one option, but in-person face-to-face visits should still be allowed.

Wagner pointed out people in these facilities are not hardened criminals for the most part, and they either haven’t been convicted of anything yet or they’re serving a relatively short sentence.

He said there is a limited video visitation program in the state prison system, but it’s seen as a supplement to the traditional visitations, which are still being used.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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