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Sentencing Project Video Visits for Children With Incarcerated Parents Oct 2012

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Video Visits for Children
Whose Parents Are
Incarcerated:
In Whose Best Interest?
Susan D. Phillips, Ph.D.
October 2012

For further information:
The Sentencing Project
1705 DeSales St., NW
8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036
(202) 628-0871
www.sentencingproject.org

This report was written by Susan D. Phillips, Ph.D., research analyst
at The Sentencing Project.
The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization engaged
in research and advocacy on criminal justice issues.
The work of The Sentencing Project is supported by many individual
donors and contributions from the following:
Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation
Ford Foundation
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General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church
Herb Block Foundation
JK Irwin Foundation
Open Society Institute
Public Welfare Foundation
David Rockefeller Fund
Elizabeth B. and Arthur E. Roswell Foundation
Tikva Grassroots Empowerment Fund of Tides Foundation
Wallace Global Fund
Working Assets/CREDO
Copyright @ 2012 by The Sentencing Project. Reproduction of this
document in full or in part, and in print or electronic format, only by
permission of The Sentencing Project

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VIDEO VISITS FOR CHILDREN WHOSE PARENTS ARE INCARCERATED | IN WHOSE BEST INTEREST?

“If video visits are an addition [to in-person visits] they will be a help to all and a God-send to
many. But, if video visits are a replacement for the current visitation, their implementation
would be a painful unwelcomed change that would be impersonal and dehumanizing.” 1

O

n any given day, approximately 2.6 million children (or about 1 in every
33) have a parent in jail or prison. 2 Until relatively recently, few people
paid attention to what happens to children when their parents are
incarcerated, but as the number of parents in jails and prisons grew
during the 1980s and 1990s there began to be an appreciation that incarcerating
parents can have a profound and enduring effect on their children. 3
The circumstances and experiences of individual children whose parents are sent to
jail or prison differ markedly, 4 but collectively this group of children experience
greater childhood adversity on average than other children. The causes of that
adversity are varied, including parental (e.g., addiction, mental illness), familial (e.g.,
poverty, violence, disrupted ties), and community problems (e.g., community
violence, exposure to drug markets, inadequate schools, delinquent peers). 5, 6 , 7
Sending parents to jail or prison can exacerbate the adversity in children’s lives and
negatively affect their well-being independent of other factors. For example, the
arrest and incarceration of parents can affect children’s ability to form relationships
with other people, precipitate feelings of grief and anxiety, and spawn symptoms of
post-traumatic stress. 8, 9 , 10 A parent’s incarceration can also result in children being
socially isolated from peers, contribute to disruptive behaviors, reduce school
performance, and exacerbate poverty and instability within families and
communities. 11, 12 , 13
As a society, we recognize the need for children who are separated from their
parents to maintain personal relations and have direct contact with their parents on a
regular basis unless compelling evidence indicates that doing so is contrary to a
child’s best interests. 14 But children whose parents are sent to jail or prison are
treated differently than children who are separated from their parents for other
reasons such as divorce, hospitalization, death, adoption, foster care placement, or
military deployment. The loss of a parent to jail or prison is often overlooked,

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VIDEO VISITS FOR CHILDREN WHOSE PARENTS ARE INCARCERATED | IN WHOSE BEST INTEREST?

unacknowledged, and dismissed. There are no rituals to mark the child’s loss and no
outpouring of community concern when a parent is incarcerated. 15
In the last 20 years, there have been growing efforts to support and nurture children
when their parents are incarcerated. Those efforts include, among other things,
facilitating opportunities for children to visit their parents in jails and prisons,
increasing opportunities for children to have physical contact with their parents
during visits, and instituting programs that allow children to take part in normal
parent-child activities with their parents during visits. 16, 17 , 18

BARRIERS TO CHILDREN VISITING THEIR PARENTS
It is not easy for children to visit their incarcerated parents, particularly if their
parents are in prison rather than in local jails. A majority of parents in prison are
housed more than 100 miles from their children. 19 Distance, along with the high
costs of transportation, food, lodging, and the time involved make it difficult for
families to take children to visit their parents. 20, 21 Roughly half of all parents in
prison (59% of those in state prison and 45% in federal prison) have never had a
visit from any of their children. 22
Security procedures can make visiting stressful. Visitation procedures are often strict,
arbitrarily enforced, and include subjecting children to searches. In some facilities,
children can only communicate with their parents through a glass barrier. In others,
they meet with their parents in crowded, noisy visiting rooms. Interactions between
children and their parents are strictly regulated, with watchful correctional officers
close by causing parents concern that their children’s normal behaviors might
unintentionally violate rules. 23, 24 Some facilities have special programs for a limited
number of parents that allow children and parents to visit together in child-friendly
environments and engage in normal parent-child activities, but these are not the
norm. 25
The opportunity for children to visit their parents is further limited by facility visiting
hours. Many facilities only have daytime visiting hours, making it difficult for schoolage children and people who are employed to visit their family members. 26

“Growing Up with a Father in Prison: Part II”
Emani Davis, http://youtube/8DlfwLRtmjQ
“You never get used to it and you always know you don’t have any control
over anything so there’s just a level of anxiety that’s always going to be there.
Are they going to give me a hard time about these shoes? Am I allowed to do
this? Is there going to be a problem if I wear this? Even though you know
what the rules are, they can be interpreted however they want depending on
the day and the officer at the front.”

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VIDEO VISITS FOR CHILDREN WHOSE PARENTS ARE INCARCERATED | IN WHOSE BEST INTEREST?

THE ADVENT OF VIDEO VISITATION
Even as advocacy groups and community organizations are pushing to remove
barriers to children visiting their incarcerated parents, changes are occurring in
correctional visitation practices: jails and prisons are shifting to video visitation –
visitation using real-time video conferencing technology similar to Skype.
Correctional facilities have been using video systems since the 1990s. Based on
interviews with system vendors, criminal justice officials, legal experts, and news
reports, the New York Times estimates that correctional facilities in at least 20 states
already have video capability or have plans to adopt the technology. 27
The benefits of video visitation for correctional facilities are described as reducing
the risk of contraband entering facilities, cost savings because fewer staff are needed
to oversee visits and, in some cases, increased revenue from fees paid by inmates or
visitors. 28,29 In Idaho, Sheriff Gary Raney of the Ada County Sheriff’s Office claims
that the virtual visitation system put in place there will have produced over $2 million
in revenue over the course of two years. 30 The companies that provide the
equipment and software that correctional facilities need to retool for and manage
video visitation are also benefiting. In fact, these companies have been referred to as
“the newest player in the prison-industrial complex.” 31
But, what about the 2.6 million children whose parents are in jail or prison? Are they
benefiting?
Possibly.
Children may benefit from video visitation if it increases opportunities for them to
communicate with their parents. But video visitation is not a substitute for in-person
contact visits, particularly for infants and young children.

POTENTIAL BENEFITS AND LIMITING FACTORS OF VIDEO
VISITATION FOR CHILDREN
To the best of our knowledge, children’s experiences visiting their incarcerated
parents via video have not yet been studied, but video visitation has been used to
help children maintain relations with parents who are absent under other
circumstances. Military families, for example, use video calls and other forms of ecommunication to help children stay connected with their parents when they are
deployed. 32 Family courts also sometimes include virtual visitation in divorce decrees
as a way for children to maintain relations with their absent noncustodial parents. 33,34
Experience in these areas suggests that video visitation may make separation from a

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VIDEO VISITS FOR CHILDREN WHOSE PARENTS ARE INCARCERATED | IN WHOSE BEST INTEREST?

parent who is incarcerated more tolerable by reducing family stress and helping
parents and children stay connected, 35 but that it is not a substitute for face-to-face
contact. 36
Children stand to benefit from correctional facilities transitioning to video visitation
if such visitation increases the frequency with which they can communicate with
their parents. Video visitation policies, however, vary markedly with respect to
whether visitors are required to travel to facilities to visit via video or can visit from
their homes or communities, the frequency and duration of visits, and costs.
Facility versus community based visits
In some instances (typically jails) families have to take children to correctional
facilities to visit via video. Rather than parents being brought to a visiting area to
meet with their children, parents remain on their units and children see and speak to
them via video. 37, 38 , 39
In other jurisdictions, families are able to visit via computers in their homes 40 or
other community locations. 41,42 Some jurisdictions make arrangements with
community organizations (e.g., churches, not-for-profit organizations, bail bond
companies) to host computer stations so families without internet access are not
excluded from video visitation. 43 In Pinellas County, Florida, the Sheriff’s Office
outfitted a bus with video visitation equipment, which travels to four cities. 44 Some
community organizations that host video visitation couple visits with other
“Visiting a Detainee in DC is Now Done by Video”

P. Hermann, July 28, 2012, The Washington Post
“When Ciara Jackson visited her boyfriend at the D.C. jail three weeks ago,
her 5-year-old daughter Talia reached out and touched the glass partition
separating her from her father. He pressed back from the other side.
‘It seemed real,’ said Jackson, 20.
That intimacy, though restricted is now gone. Jackson and other visitors must
chat by video, with cameras aimed at detainees in the jail and at their loved
ones a few hundred yards away in a building attached to the former D.C.
General Hospital Complex in Southeast D.C.
Prisoner rights groups complain that the video visits – a growing trend at jails
across the country – deprive the detained of interacting with flesh-and-blood
people and contradict a long-held philosophy that family visits are vital to
rehabilitation and morale.”

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VIDEO VISITS FOR CHILDREN WHOSE PARENTS ARE INCARCERATED | IN WHOSE BEST INTEREST?

programming for children and their incarcerated parents so that the visit becomes a
supportive, therapeutic intervention to improve parent-child relationships. 45 , 46
Fees
Anyone with a computer or cell phone with a camera and an internet connection can
make video calls at no cost using readily available free software such as Skype, but
some correctional facilities and community sites charge fees for video visitation. 47,48
In some cases the fees go to the correctional facility and in others they go to the
community organizations that host remote visitation sites. 49
Fees vary widely. The Ada County Jail in Idaho allows visitors to register for two free
25-minute video visits per week and charges a small fee for additional visits. 50 In
contrast, Indiana’s Rockville Correctional Facility charges families $12.50 for 30
minutes of virtual visitation, which is only slightly less than the $15 charge for a 30minute local phone call. 51
The Virtual Visitation Program in Pennsylvania allows one 55-minute virtual visit a
month for $15, with the fee going to the not-for-profit hosting the program. Priority
for virtual visitation is given to inmates who participate in parenting skills classes and
other family-oriented programs. 52 In Virginia, the Department of Corrections
recently expanded its virtual visitation program and charges $15 for a 30-minute and
$30 for a 60-minute visit with the fees going to community churches that host
visiting sites. 53

SUMMARY
Jail and prison administrators are often attracted to video visitation for its potential
cost savings and profits as well as security benefits. Video visitation can be managed
with fewer personnel than regular visitation and the risk of contraband entering
facilities is reduced. Video visitation is also a potential source of revenue for facilities
and for the companies that provide video visitation equipment and software. Renovo
Software, a company that specializes in video communication software, frames the
use of virtual visitation as a profitable business venture complete with the potential
to use advertisements on the computer stations. 54
The potential for video visitation to benefit children will largely depend on the
policies of the facilities in which their parents are housed. Video visitation can be
expected to have the greatest benefits when:
•
•

used as an adjunct to rather than a replacement for other modes of
communication, particularly contact visits;
children can visit from their homes or nearby sites;

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VIDEO VISITS FOR CHILDREN WHOSE PARENTS ARE INCARCERATED | IN WHOSE BEST INTEREST?

•
•

facility policies allow for frequent visits; and
fees are not cost prohibitive.

The Vermont Legislative Research Services office cut to the heart of the matter
when it concluded:
Corrections administrators should be cognizant that traditional contact visitation is the
best means of communication between children and their incarcerated parent; however, in
many circumstances it is impractical for families to visit their loved ones in prison.
Virtual visitation helps if the prison is too far, transportation is too expensive, or the
prison environment is inappropriate for a child. In-person visitation is regarded as the
most effective form of child-incarcerated parent visitation. 55

Beazar, C. (2008) Video Visitation. The Real Cost of Prisons Project.
http://realcostofprisons.org/writing/beazer_video.html
2 Estimate uses data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (Glaze, L.E. & Maruschak, L.M.
[2008], Parents in prison and their minor children, and Glaze, L.E. [2011], Correctional populations, 2010). An
estimated 53% of all people in prison are parents with an average of 2.1 children. The total number
of children with incarcerated parents (2.6 million) was derived by applying these estimates to the total
number of people in jails and prisons in 2010 (2.3 million). That number was then divided by the
number of children under age 18 based on 2010 Census estimates (74.1 million) to arrive at the
estimated percentage of children with parents in jail or prison (3.1%).
3 Murray, J. (2008). Longitudinal research on the effects of parental incarceration on children. In
Eddy, J. M. & Poehlmann, J. (Eds). Children of incarcerated parents: A handbook for researchers and
practitioners (pp. 55-74). Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.
4 Maruschak, L. M., Glaze, L.E., & Mumola, C.J. (2010). Incarcerated parents and their children:
Findings from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In Eddy, J. M. & Poehlmann, J. (Eds). Children of
incarcerated parents: A handbook for researchers and practitioners (pp. 33-52). Washington, DC: Urban
Institute Press.
5 Johnson, E. I., & Waldfogel, J. (2002). Children of incarcerated parents: Cumulative risk and
children's living arrangements. New York: Columbia University.
6 Phillips, S. D., Burns, B.J., Wagner, H.R. & Barth, R.P. (2004). Parental arrest and children involved
with child welfare services agencies. Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 2, 174-186.
7 Phillips, S.D., Burns, B.J., Wagner, H.R., Kramer, T.L. & Robbins, J.M. (2002). Parental
incarceration among adolescents receiving mental health services. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 11,
385–399.
8 Poehlmann, J. (2005). Representation of attachment relationships in children of incarcerated
mothers. Child Development, 76, 679-696.
1

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9Walker,

VIDEO VISITS FOR CHILDREN WHOSE PARENTS ARE INCARCERATED | IN WHOSE BEST INTEREST?

C.A. (2005). Children of incarcerated parents: Full report. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Child Guidance
Center. http://www.foundationcenter.org/grantmaker/childguidance/linked_files/incarcerated.pdf
10 Ibid. 7
11 Cho, R.M. (2009) The impact of maternal imprisonment on children’s education achievement:
Results from children in Chicago Public Schools. Journal of Human Resources, 44, 772-797.
12 Phillips, S.D., Erkanli, A., Keeler, G.P., Costello, E.J., & Angold, A. (2006). Disentangling the risks:
Parent criminal justice involvement and children’s exposure to family risks. Criminology and Public
Policy, 5, 677-702.
13 Rose, D. R., & Clear, T. R. (1998). Incarceration, social capital, and crime: Implications for social
disorganization theory. Criminology, 26, 441-478.
14 Boudin, C. (2011). Children of incarcerated parents: The child’s constitutional right to the family
relationship. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 101, 77-118.
15 Bocknek, E.L., Sanderson, J. & Britner, P.A. (2009). Ambiguous loss and posttraumatic stress in
school-age children of prisoners. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 18, 323-333.
16 Block, K. J. (1999). Bringing scouting to prison: Programs and challenges. Prison Journal, 79, 215.
17 Snyder, Z.K., Carol, T.A., & Mullins, M.M. (2001). Parenting from prison: An examination of a
children's visitation program at a women's correctional facility. Marriage and Family Review, 32, 33-62.
18 Tennessee Department of Corrections: Child Visitation Program
http://www.tn.gov/correction/institutions/child.html
19 Mumola, C. (2000). Incarcerated parents and their children. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
20 Christian, J. (2005). Riding the bus. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 21(1), 31-48.
21 Monroe, A. (nd). Effects of prison location on visitation.
http://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1109&context=mcnair_journal
22 Glaze, L. E., & Maruschak, L. M. (2008). Parents in prison and their minor children (NCJ 222984).
Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
23 Dunn, E. & Arbuckle, J.G. (2002). Children of incarcerated parents enhanced visitation programs: Impacts of
the Living Interactive Families (LIFE) Program. University of Columbia, Missouri.
http://extension.missouri.edu/4hlife/guide/4HLIFE_guide_appendix_09.pdf
24 Parke, R., & Clarke-Stewart, A. (2002). Effects of parental incarceration on young children. Washington,
D.C.: The Urban Institute.
25 Girl Scouts of the USA. (2008). Third year evaluation of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars. NY: Author.
http://www.girlscouts.org/research/pdf/gsbb_report.pdf
26 Ibid. 24
27 Emmanuel, A. (2012). In-person visits fade as jails set up video units for inmates and families. New
York Times.
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9401E1D91039F934A3575BC0A9649D8B63
28 Eickhoff, T. (2010). Video visitation: Evolving revenue streams. Corrections One News.

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Gresko, J. (2009). Families visit prison from comfort of their homes
http://www.azcentral.com/offbeat/articles/2009/07/02/20090702ArmchairPrison.html#ixzz24hY8
4ff3
30 Corrections One News. Internet video visitation: Why and how to make the switch.
http://www.correctionsone.com/products/facility-products/inmate-visitation/articles/2075432Internet-video-visitation-Why-and-how-to-make-the-switch/
31 Russia Today, Video Visits: The Latest Player in the Prison-Industrial Complex
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVNHRxPotSI
32 Parent’s guide to the military child during deployment and reunion.
http://www.usarak.army.mil/crisisassistance/Documents/Parents_Guide_Deployment_Reunion.pdf
33 Gramlich, J. (2009). States expand video conferencing. Stateline.
34 Welsh, D., (2008). Virtual parents: How virtual visitation legislation is shaping the future of custody
law. Journal of Law and Family Studies, 11, 215-224.
35 Van Pelt, J. (2011) Parental deployment and child mental health. Social Work Today, 11, 30.
36 Graham v. Graham, 794 A.2d 912, 915 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2002).
37 Hermann, P., J. Visiting a Detainee in D.C. is Now Done by Video. July 28, 2010, The Washington
Post.
38 Inmates, visitors benefit from new jail visitation system.
http://youtube.com/watch?v=Svz8HnEVWoM
39 Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Video visitation center rules and regulations.
http://www.hcso.tampa.fl.us/getdoc/987260f8-1fa5-4eff-ac70-c21963f97031/Video-VisitationCenter.aspx
40 Quinn, R. (2009) Video prison visits bring inmates home. Newser.
http://www.newser.com/story/63373/video-prison-visits-bring-inmates-home.html
41 Ibid. 28
42 Assisting Families of Inmates, Inc. http://www.prisoneducation.com/prison-educationnews/2012/3/10/assisting-families-of-inmates-inc.html.
43 Ibid. 28
44 Video visitation bus connects jail inmates to families http://www.govtech.com/public-safety/VideoVisitation-Bus-Connects-Jail-Inmates.html
45 Crabbe, M. (2002). Virtual visitation program uses video conferencing to strengthen prisoner
contacts with families and children. Offender Program Report, 6, 35-36, 47.
https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=197834
46 PB&J Family Services, TVCP (Tele-Visitation for Children of Prisoners).
http://pbjfamilyservices.org/prisonrelated.html
47 Maryland General Assembly, Department of Legislative Services. Fiscal and Policy Note HB 796 –
Bringing Maryland Families Together Act. http://mlis.state.md.us/2012rs/fnotes/bil_0006/hb0796.pdf
29

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VIDEO VISITS FOR CHILDREN WHOSE PARENTS ARE INCARCERATED | IN WHOSE BEST INTEREST?

Vermont Legislative Research Services. Prison Video Conferencing. The University of Vermont, James
M. Jeffords Center.
http://www.uvm.edu/~vlrs/CriminalJusticeandCorrections/prison%20video%20conferencing.pdf
49 Virginia Department of Corrections. Video Visitation.
http://www.vadoc.state.va.us/offenders/prison-life/videoVisitation.shtm
50 Ada County Jail Video Visitation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOcgTKsz4pE
51 Ibid. 29
52 Crabbe, M. (2002). Virtual visitation program uses video conferencing to strengthen prisoner
contacts with families and children. Offender Program Report, 6, 35-36, 47.
https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=197834
53 Ibid. 48
54 Ibid. 28
55 Ibid. 48
48

FURTHER READING AVAILABLE AT www.sentencingproject.org:
Fact Sheet: Parents in Prison
Incarcerated Parents and Their Children: Trends 1991-2007
Women in the Criminal Justice System

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Washington, DC 20036
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