The holidays are all about trying to spend time with family, a hard thing to do when a family member is behind bars. And it's even harder if that person is held in a local jail, where there's been a growing trend away from in-person visits. "There's no more eye-to-eye, face-to-face visitation," says Maj. David McFadyen, the head of administrative operations for the sheriff's office in North Carolina's Craven County. Since the pandemic, the county jail has switched to a remote video system for family visits, NPR reports. It's not free; families pay the video service contractor $8 per 20 minutes. But McFadyen says it's easier for everyone involved. "The inmates themselves don't have to leave the cell block. So it takes less personnel to have to bring them to another area where there was the face-to-face visitation," he says. And because family members no longer come to the jail, they also don't have to be screened for contraband. Prisons across the U.S. have mostly returned to allowing in-person visits since COVID. But in jails, which house people for shorter periods, usually before trial, there's been less interest in reopening doors to family, according to Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative.
There are no national statistics tracking the visiting rules for the thousands of locally run jails, but she says the trend seems clear. "Not only are jails cutting back on in-person visits, they are building new facilities to exclude that possibility entirely," Bertram says. Jails that have done this say video allows inmates more time to visit with family, even outside traditional jail visiting hours. Julie Poehlmann, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies families of incarcerated people and said research has shown the value of in-person visits, both to the incarcerated person and family members. But she says a lot depends on the quality of the visit. In Craven County, Maj. McFadyen sees the shift to video as a reflection of what's going on outside the jail. "Our whole society and socialization has changed now, where incredibly, many people do communicate when they're not incarcerated [by] Facetiming with their smartphones or their computers," he says. And in jail, McFadyen says video is just better, especially for kids. He thinks visiting a jail in person is just too traumatic for them. He says with video, kids can spend even more time connecting with a jailed parent, and in the same way they're increasingly connecting with the rest of their world, through a screen.