California to Offer Virtual Visits for Prisoners After Thanksgiving

Starting this weekend, California prisons will offer virtual visits for incarcerated people, joining other states in making it easier for inmates to stay connected with family and friends during the coronavirus pandemic.

The state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a Nov. 20 news release that the initiative will launch in five prisons on Nov. 28 and 29, with each eligible inmate allowed a free 30-minute virtual visit every 30 days. The program will expand to more institutions by the end of 2020, according to the department’s website.

[READ: California Businesses Boil Over Gavin Newsom’s Fine Dining]

The announcement, first reported by StateScoop, comes months after the department suspended in-person visits on March 11. The department was close to reopening in-person visitation with limitations in October, but with a steady rise in cases since — there were nearly 2,000 COVID-19 cases in the state’s prison system as of Nov. 20 — those plans were put on hold.

“Video visiting and telephone communications are not and will never be a replacement for in-person visits,” Kathleen Allison, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a statement. “The resumption of visits has been a top priority since I took the helm of the department in October, and we will continue to work toward reopening safely, in collaboration with public health experts, in a way that is safe for all involved.”

California is not the first state to institute such a program in its prisons. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections launched a video visitation program in August, which will remain in place even when in-person visits are allowed to resume. The department temporarily used the video conferencing program Zoom for visits between March 19 — when in-person visitation was suspended — and Aug. 31, and nearly 130,000 virtual visits were hosted in that span, says Susan McNaughton, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

“The inmates have responded favorably to the video visitation program,” McNaughton tells U.S. News. “In fact, several have told us that they now are able to visit people they haven’t seen in decades, because those people couldn’t make the trip to the prisons for in-person visits. We understand the importance of visits for inmates and their families and friends and made it a top priority to allow these connections to take place while protecting inmates from COVID-19.”

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Other states have put similar programs in place. In Vermont, inmates can be given a tablet that allows them to make phone calls, send messages to family members and receive photographs, according to Vermont Public Radio, which interviewed Al Cormier, facilities executive for the state’s Department of Corrections. Prisoners can also get one free video visit per week, Cormier said. In Delaware, where in-person visits were suspended for a second time earlier in November, virtual visits and phone calls are available to state prison inmates, according to Delaware Public Media.

Virtual visitation programs haven’t always been met with full-fledged support. Some family members of Florida prisoners have called the state’s video visit rules “too harsh,” the Miami New Times reported. Loved ones expressed concern about rules requiring inmates to accept a state-issued tablet — which they might become financially responsible for — and to stay seated for the duration of a virtual visit, according to the New Times.

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