New Mexico jail bans in-person visits, offers video chats

FILE – In this March 28, 2018, file photo, Robbie Wilson, 10, talks with his mother Krystle Sweat in a video conference as he visits her in the Campbell County Jail in Jacksboro, Tenn. The San Juan County Adult Detention Center, a northwestern New Mexico jail, announced in January 2020, it would join some jails in Tennessee and no longer allow family and friends to visit detainees in person and will now offer only phone or online video chats. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

FARMINGTON, N.M. | A northwestern New Mexico jail is no longer allowing family and friends to visit detainees in person and will now offer only phone or online video chats.

The San Juan County Adult Detention Center announced this month all visits must be done over the phone or through the approved online video chat app called Getting Out, the Farmington Daily Times reports.

San Juan County said the change is a positive step that will reduce the travel burden families face while visiting inmates. “It comes down to technology and convenience for family members,” said county spokesman Devin Neeley.

The change will also increase security by decreasing the number of people going in and out of the detention center each day, Neeley said. He said that will allow the detention center to reassign officers to other parts of the facility. This will also save taxpayers money, according to Neeley.

But the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative says not allowing in-person visits can have negative impacts on inmates as well as safety at the jails and prisons.

“The feeling of being physically close to your loved one can’t be replaced by fancy technology,” said Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist for Prison Policy Initiative, in an email to The Daily Times. “But even if it could, this technology is far from fancy. This isn’t Skype; it’s shoddy technology that is glitchy, grainy, doesn’t allow you to look the other person in the eyes, and can break and go down for weeks.”

Bertram said family visits are often the only source of hope for people in jail. “When you take that away, it can seriously hurt people psychologically, and that puts everyone in the jail at risk,” Bertram said

Hundreds of jails and prisons across the United States have moved away from in-person visits in favor of video visitation, the Prison Policy Initiative said.

Prison Policy Initiative teamed up with a group called Face to Face Knox to study the impacts ending in-person visitation had at the Knox County Jail in Knoxville, Tennessee. Knox County ended in-person visitation in 2014. The Face to Face Knox report was released in January 2018.

The Face to Face Knox study found that ending in-person visitation did not lead to a substantial drop in the amount of contraband entering the jail, and that ending in-person visits made the jail more dangerous by increasing the number of assaults on other inmates or staff.

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, people using the video visitation software complained that calls would fail halfway through the visit, and sometimes they couldn’t even get it to connect.

Neeley said each detainee at the San Juan County Detention Center will have a free 15-minute video visit each week. Additional visits or time will be charged 25 cents per minute.

Neeley said the county is aware that the phone or online visitation may not work for everyone. He said the court can notify the detention center and, when necessary, it will make allowances for visits.