Letter: Pay to Visit Unfair

With around 2,266,800 adults rotting in U.S. federal and state prisons, some describe these places as the modern-day slave ships of our century.

Though this may be hyperbole it is unarguable that America prison population has boomed with non-violent drug offenders. About 4,814,200 adults are on probation or on parole.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. If putting people in prison worked, America would be the most drug free non-violent society on Earth.

There is a sliver of good news in this atrocity.

Recidivism is the tendency for former prisoners to relapse back into crime. One bit of good news is that there is one well proved, well studied policy that reduces recidivism rates among prisoners. Visitation from family, friends, children, and pastors.

The reasons for this are manifold and well documented, ranging from helping offenders establish a continuum of social support from prison to the community, to the fact that prisoners often rely upon the community of family and friends for shelter, food, and jobs upon their release. All this has been studied exhaustively.

Knowing this, I was horrified to discover that the Knox County Detention Facility (KCDF) is ending all face-to-face free visitation. Instead, they are going to a paid video service, which instead of being free will cost poor families $11 for 30 minutes.

The problems with this are obvious. I searched and there have been no credible studies as to the effectiveness of video vs. in-person visitation. This may come as a surprise to some, but a credible argument can be made that crime is result of poverty; the overwhelming majority of prisoners are poor and come from poor families with no computers, no access to the Internet, no computer skills, and no money to pay for visitation that was at one time free.

I understanding that gouging prisoners with exorbitant phone call prices and jacked-up food cost is a major cash flow for the prison industrial complex. I read that charging prisoners for video visitation is now a billion-dollar industry and the profits from keeping children and families from being able to visit in person are terribly tempting.

But I am repulsed by it. KCDF has utilized no pilot program, cites no studies that this will not damage the proven good face-to-face visits do, and is making poor families pay for the dehumanized experience of only seeing the heads on video.

All civilized people in Knoxville should be repulsed and horrified by this. It is in no way in society's interest and may do real damage to the good that free visits do. It will now cost more than a movie to see a loved one for 30 minutes. Under no theory of deterrence or rehabilitation is this a good idea.

I would urge citizens to complain, write, and reject this new unproven policy. At the very least KCDF could offer both. Allow free human-to-human visitation in addition to video. If paid video meetings are preferred to free human-to-human, then it will reduce the visitors to the jail through the market rather than force.

Otherwise this appears a crass attempt to squeeze more money out of poor prisoners at a cost to society and may damage recidivism rates or actually increase them. It is in no way in society's interest under any theory other than profits for an already bloated prison industrial complex.

Chris Irwin


Ed. Note: We verified the transition to video visitation with Knox County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Martha Dooley, but no further details about the program were ready to be released.