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Who’s really bringing contraband into jails? Our 2018 survey confirms it’s staff, not visitors

When jails cut family visits in the name of security, advocates should demand evidence.

by Jorge Renaud, December 6, 2018

Sheriffs are increasingly welcoming video calling technology into their jails, with more than 500 local jails now contracting with video calling providers like GTL and Securus. Usually, sheriffs simultaneously do away with in-person visits, despite studies showing that they are crucial for maintaining family bonds.

To ward off claims that this is just a money-grubbing scheme, sheriffs invoke the argument that doing away with face-to-face visits “increase[s] the safety and security of our facilities,” presumably by stopping contraband brought in by jail visitors.

This argument is demonstrably false, and yet jail administrators repeat it at every possible opportunity. Sheriffs raise the specter of visitors loaded down with drugs, somehow passing them through physical searches and through body scanners and through glass partitions, with the only solution being a move to remote technology. For one thing, this scenario is implausible, given that in-person jail visitors are virtually always separated from their loved ones by a glass window. But more importantly, by blaming contraband on in-person visitors, sheriffs distract from a far more likely source: jail staff.

I reviewed news stories of arrests made in 2018 of individuals caught bringing contraband into jails and prisons. What I found wouldn’t surprise any person in jail, but it’s a truth that sheriffs prefer to avoid: Almost all contraband introduced to any local jail comes through staff. This year alone, 20 jail staff members in 12 separate county jails were arrested, indicted, or convicted on charges of bringing in or planning to bring in contraband.

State Facility Details of incident
Alabama Marshall County Jail Sheriff fires, arrests, and charges four jail staff for “promoting prison contraband.” (more)
Florida Lake County Correctional Center Jail staff charged with smuggling marijuana and phone. (more)
Maryland Jessup Correctional Institution Two staff indicted for conspiring to bring in drugs. (more)
Mississippi Bolivar County Regional Correctional Facility Jail staff arrested for smuggling contraband. (more)
Missouri Jackson County Detention Center Jail staff sentenced for bringing in contraband phones, cigarettes, and drugs. (more)
Ohio Lucas County Correctional Center Two staff indicted for conspiring to bring in drugs. (more)
Pennsylvania Lebanon County Correctional Facility Jail staff arrested for smuggling meth, suboxone, and naloxone. (more)
Pennsylvania Philadelphia House of Corrections, Detention Center, and Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility Six staff at four Philadelphia facilities arrested for smuggling drugs and phones into jail. (more)
Texas Bexar County Jail Two staff indicted for conspiring to smuggle meth into jail. (more)

In fact, most of the jails in question had recently eliminated in-person visits in favor of video calls – a technology which, again, is supposed to reduce contraband.

Moving to video calling has financial benefits for jails, and those benefits have convinced sheriffs to overlook the importance of in-person visits for incarcerated individuals and their families. While rates charged for video calls vary, almost every jail that offers video calling receives commissions from the provider. Video calling also reduces the number of jailers necessary to monitor visitation, allowing sheriffs to cut their payroll.

In order to realize those financial benefits, sheriffs have to justify taking away children’s right to see their parents in person. And that means blaming families for contraband, even when that claim has no legs to stand on.

If any sheriff has ever commissioned a study to back up their claim that banning in-person visits makes jails safer, they’ve never cited one. However, multiple studies (including one we assisted with) do suggest that banning in-person visits makes jails less safe overall, with no reduction in contraband.

Advocates for in-person visits should demand that sheriffs provide proof of their claims. Banning in-person visits means more money for jails at the expense of family connections. We can’t let the sheriffs’ baseless assertions to the contrary go unchallenged.

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