The Bristol County Sheriff’s office intends to end in-person visitation in two Dartmouth facilities, replacing it with video calls. The Bristol County House of Correction and the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office Women’s Center will be the first jails in Massachusetts to make the transition.
These Bristol County facilities hold both inmates serving sentences and individuals awaiting trial. They currently have a non-contact policy for visits, in which inmates speak to their friends and family over a phone through a Plexiglas window. Under the new policy, visitors will not enter the actual jails and will instead be directed to an onsite trailer equipped with computers and video conferencing software manufactured by Securus, a private company that many correctional facilities contract for telephone and video communication services. Calls that take place from the trailer will be free of charge. Remote video calls will also eventually be possible but will require virtual visitors to pay an undetermined fee. The new policy will not apply to attorney visits, nor will it affect inmates housed in the Dartmouth ICE facility or the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford.
According to the Bristol County Sheriff’s office, abolishing in-person visitation is part of an effort to reduce the flow of contraband entering the jails. Despite visits taking place through a Plexiglas barrier, drugs and weapons have still been smuggled into the facilities. Officials from the Bristol County House of Correction reported a recent incident in which inmates responsible for post-visitation cleanup obtained a strip of the narcotic Suboxone that had been tucked behind chipped paint on the visitors’ side of the Plexiglas.
The ACLU of Massachusetts has voiced its opposition to the video-only visitation policy. Spokesperson Aaron Wolfson criticized the plan, stating, “As any Skype user can tell you, video communication may provide a benefit to people who are far apart or unable to travel, but it’s no substitute for being in the same room with a person you love. Cutting off the human contact of in-person visitation is cruel to people in jail, their families, and loved ones.”
The new policy is expected to take effect in approximately one month. John Fitzpatrick, who, along with Joel Thompson, is one of the two Supervising Attorneys for the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, said, “This is a problematic policy change. It further dehumanizes an already marginalized prisoner population. It would be surprising if this were not eventually challenged in court. Unfortunately the current Bristol County Sheriff implementing this restriction has a history of making controversial, regressive pronouncements about prisoners in his custody. His latest limit on in-person visitation is both unsurprising and disappointing. Emphasizing punishment in this way rather than rehabilitation and reintegration is contrary to the current bipartisan political consensus favoring prison reform at the national and state level.”