Philly prisons to try video visits for inmates

    The Philadelphia Prison System is planning to set up “video visits” at one of the city’s jails in hopes of increasing convenience and cutting costs, but the project is garnering mixed reviews from advocates for inmates.

    Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla says inmates will be able to see their loved ones on a video screen at the jail, a remote site or perhaps even a personal iPhone one day, depending on several different factors that are still being worked out. He expects the video visits to start as part of a pilot program at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in a few months.

    Girola says the virtual visitations would be especially beneficial for families who live several hours away from an incarcerated person or find it difficult to get to State Road for other reasons.

    “We know that it would be convenient for some visitors to visit via video from an off-site location,” he said. “It may provide a way for somebody who can’t come here, somebody who’s disabled, somebody who’s far away.”

    He also says it could cut down on the waiting times for in-person visitors, which range from a half-hour to several hours. He’s also hoping it will save taxpayer dollars.

    Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, worries that video visits may replace face-fo-face ones. Other prisons in the country have eliminated or reduced in-person visits after introducing video alternatives, and she says they simply aren’t the same. 

    “The connection between family and the person who’s incarcerated is critical. It’s critical for the family,” she said, “but it’s also critical for our neighborhoods because this is a public safety issue. We know that family contact can help reduce recidivism.”

    Giorla says he believes in-person visits are valuable, and is not planning to scrap them. However, he says their availability may be tied to inmate behavior in the future.

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