California legislators continue fighting for in-person jail visits

by Bernadette Rabuy, September 6, 2017

As we’ve explained, jails affect state prison outcomes. This might explain why California state legislators have been so concerned about the harmful trend of local jails replacing in-person visits with video calls. In the 2015-2016 legislation cycle, the California legislature approved SB 1157, which would have required jails to provide in-person visits, but Governor Brown vetoed the legislation. In his veto message, the governor asked the state regulatory body that sets jail visitation regulations, the Board of State and Community Corrections, to investigate the issue.

I didn’t realize this at the time, but SB 1157 was just the beginning of the struggle to protect in-person visits in California jails. After the veto, I learned that California legislators were planning an informational hearing at the state Capitol on video calls, and I was invited to testify on the Prison Policy Initiative’s research.

The timing worked out well. Days before the informational hearing, the Board of State and Community Corrections released proposed revisions to the jail visitation regulations. The regulations, which were later approved, prohibit jails from replacing in-person visits with video calls but exempt jails that had already eliminated in-person visits.

At the hearing, the legislators were colorful and adamant in their critiques of video calls. While the support from members of the public, legislators, and the press has been unanimous since we started our national campaign to protect in-person visits, it was still a rare and powerful sight to see legislators standing so strongly on the side of incarcerated people and their families. And the legislators pinpointed the dangers of banning in-person visits in a way that’s helpful for anyone in the country hoping to protect family visits:

  • Eliminating in-person visits is contrary to reducing recidivism and supporting rehabilitation.

    In 2011, California adopted Realignment in order to comply with a court order to reduce the state’s prison population. Realignment consists of shifting non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual state prisoners from state prisons to county jails. As Senator Nancy Skinner pointed out, there was a secondary rationale for Realignment. California legislators and Governor Jerry Brown reasoned that imprisoning people in jails, which are generally closer to home, could lead to greater visitation. Because visits have been shown to reduce recidivism, in theory, imprisoning people in jails rather than prisons could reduce recidivism.

    But as we’ve previously explained, there is no evidence that video calls have the same effect on recidivism as in-person visits. In fact, replacing in-person visits with video calls works against the goal of reducing recidivism because it can reduce visitation. In Travis County, Texas jails, banning in-person visits led the total number of visits to drop by 28% from September 2009 to September 2013. Thus, as state legislators aimed to increase visitation, county sheriffs were impeding visitation by leaving families with nothing more than low-quality video calls.

  • As much as possible, states should not exempt counties from having to provide in-person visits.

    As I previously noted, the Board of State and Community Corrections’ regulations prohibit jails from replacing in-person visits with video calls but exempt jails that had already decided to eliminate in-person visits. While Texas similarly exempted some counties from having to provide in-person visits, the key California legislators were more public about their belief that the exemption would let too many counties off the hook. In California, counties received exemptions for jails that were built without physical space for in-person visits and jails that were in the midst of construction or renovation that would culminate in only providing video calls. But some counties received exemptions when they were fully capable of providing in-person visits in a jail but had simply decided not to. In response to the exemption, Senator Skinner said,

    I’ve got six that were built without visitation, so you know, maybe those are the six…that one could, perhaps, make a case for having difficulty…but, the first 10, it seems really hard to imagine why, when they already have that in-person space, the [regulations] would allow them to ban it.

    Similarly, Assemblymember Shirley Weber pointed out,

    I find it…difficult to digest that we would have facilities that have space, but would still refuse to have in-person visitations. What is the theory behind this?…There has to be some rationale…I assume the people who work in those facilities are… the leaders in the area [of] public safety and criminal justice…So what is the rationale for that?

    Skinner and Weber were in disbelief that the exemption was crafted so broadly. The Board of State and Community Corrections defended the expansive exemption, saying that some counties built jails in recent years without physical space for in-person visits. When SB 1157 was introduced, these counties claimed that it would cost too much money to bring back in-person visits now that they had jails built without visitation rooms. But as the legislators pointed out, the Board of State and Community Corrections was exempting more than just those counties and it failed to provide any research or policy-based rationale for exempting counties that had the physical space to provide in-person visits.

    Assemblymember Jones Sawyer rejected the idea that counties constructing or renovating jails in order to eliminate in-person visits should be exempted. Jones Sawyer explained that it wasn’t too late for the Board of State and Community Corrections to require these counties to change their plans,

    I worked several years in the city of Los Angeles. I left as the director of real estate. I’ve actually built a jail in the city of L.A…. All of them can have [in-person] visitation in them…and you can require that…It can be done, and it can be done quickly, even on the end of construction.

    The legislators agreed that the regulations were a half-hearted attempt to protect in-person visits.

  • Because of the two-way relationship between state and local criminal justice systems, states should look for ways to influence harmful local criminal justice policies.

    The state legislators were also upset that state money was being used in the construction and renovation of local jails that eliminated in-person visits. As Senator Skinner said, “The state is paying most of the bill for these county facilities…so in theory, the state should be able to make these decisions.” Senator Mitchell, the author of SB 1157, similarly expressed,

    I’m very glad that the budget subcommittee chairs for public safety are here, and I hope that you will take [this] into account as we make future decisions about funding allocations for the constructions of jails…that we’re clear about what state policies, what state expectations they will adhere to because perhaps we should turn off the spigot.

    The legislators expressed some support for local control of criminal justice policies, but they did not want to financially support a harmful trend that was working against the state’s goal of reducing recidivism. The legislators also felt that the Board of State and Community Corrections was fully aware of the legislators’ support for in-person visits since they approved SB 1157 with bipartisan, bicameral support.

The hearing was the most tense and lively visit to the California Capitol I’ve experienced. It was powerful to witness legislators so animated over an issue that primarily affects incarcerated people and their families, a population that is too often ignored. The legislators’ sharp analysis of the harm of banning in-person visits was also a reminder that this campaign should not exist on the fringes of the larger movement to end mass incarceration. Assemblymember Weber might have captured the urgent need to protect in-person jail visits best, “I feel like we’ve made some steps forward in this whole area of criminal justice, every time we seem to go forward, there seems to be some problem to drag us back. And some of these problems appear to be small, but they really have huge consequences.”

Update: In June, Governor Brown signed the 2017-2018 California budget, including AB 103, which statutorily requires jails to provide in-person visits rather than video calls. Like the approved regulations, the budget trailer bill exempts counties that had already decided to eliminate in-person visits. The bill is a step forward because it adds a statutory layer of protection for in-person visits and protects in-person visits in more California counties. The Board of State and Community Corrections has put the approved regulations on hold to ensure that the regulations conform with AB 103.

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