As COVID arrived in March of 2020, Davidson County eliminated in-person visiting in its jails, switching to video visitation as a social distancing precaution. More than two years later, those incarcerated are still not allowed to see their families and loved ones in the same room.
As of September, this lack of in-person visitation was noted on the jail website as a pandemic protocol. Now it reads: “Inmate visits are video only with the exception of attorney visits.” Subtly, the possibility of in-person visiting has faded.
Even as state prisons in Tennessee have all gone back to in-person visiting, the local sheriff’s office sees video visiting as something akin to Zoom calls and remote work — part of the new, post-COVID normal.
Sheriff Daron Hall says he thinks incarcerated people are more comfortable seeing their loved ones on screens.
“This generation lives that way. They have girlfriends and boyfriends and family members and loved ones and Thanksgivings and everything else done that way,” he says.
Yet lawyers and families say a lot is being lost.
“COVID has taught us all that video conferencing is no substitute for in-person conversations … and all the warmth that you feel from somebody just to see them,” says Dawn Deaner, the city’s former public defender and now executive director of the Choosing Justice Initiative.
Parents of young children have a particularly hard time. Deaner recalls a client who was in custody when his son was born. When COVID began, he was no longer able to see his child in person, and it took a toll on the young father.
“Kids that age aren’t really good on a video conference, right?” Deaner says. “You can’t really talk to a 1-and-a-half-year-old or 2-and-a-half-year-old over a tablet.”
And she notes that all jail calls with family and friends are recorded and can be monitored. That puts pressure on incarcerated people as they try to decide what to do.
“They’re really having to make difficult decisions about how to handle serious things in their lives,” says Deaner, “whether that is … something that’s happening to you in jail, whether it’s something that they want to tell you about what’s happening at home … or should I take this plea bargain offer?”
In-person family visits, she says, are the one time to have a free and open conversation.
In the past, these visiting areas were recorded by video, but individual conversations were not monitored.
But prosecutors and detectives routinely access jail calls and use them against people at trial. This is even part of the sales pitch from the company that provides the video software, Securus Technologies, which touts how their technologies “boost … investigative capabilities.”
Securus has been at the center of several controversies across the country, involving charging inflated prices for calls, and for recording calls between detainees and their lawyers.
In Knoxville, a 2018 report by Face to Face Knox found that half of the fee paid by families for video calls went directly to the jail itself, adding up to almost $70,000 in less than four years. The fee arrangement is intentionally different in Davidson County so that the jail doesn’t receive such funds through its contract.
One family’s struggle to stay connected
To better understand visitation, I met with one mother whose son is incarcerated in Nashville and awaiting trial. Her name has been changed because of fear of retaliation.
The first thing you see when you walk into Tina’s house is a wall crammed full of family pictures. They span five generations. Interspersed are words this household lives by, like “do everything with love,” “give thanks,” and “Nanas are angels on earth.”
This morning Tina is nervous. She’s attempting her third video call with her son. The first two left her with low expectations.
“When I did two video calls before I didn’t get to talk to my son. I didn’t hear his voice,” she says, before beginning to act out what happened. “I could just see his mouth move. So we would try to do sign language. I tried to say, like, ‘I. Love. You.’ ”
Today, as soon as her son’s face appears, she’s full of energy. She beams as his voice comes through.
“I love you! You look so handsome.”
The sound and image quality were inconsistent, but both seemed happy to connect.
Later, Tina explained that any face-to-face interaction with her son in jail involves a lot of performance on both sides.
“We have to wear multiple faces. He has to wear his face and then I have to wear my face. You know, I have to be like,” — she puts on a falsely bright voice — “ ‘Hey son, how you doing? What’s going on?’ … We’re constantly trying to make each other laugh. And then at the end of this, it’s heartbreaking each time.”
There is another option for families — it’s called an “on-site video visit,” and Tina has just scheduled one. It’s still over screens but it takes place inside the jail.
Sheriff Hall says traveling to the jail is inconvenient and expensive. Tina, though, says it’s worth it just to be near her son.
“To be able to … go in the building where he’s at. It makes a difference.”
The sheriff contends that a video visit is more affordable than driving downtown or out to the jail in South Nashville on Harding Place. But Tina says that $5 for a 20-minute video call felt steep. And taking a bus downtown to get to see her son for a free in-person visit, which could last up to an hour, felt worthwhile.
It was her son’s birthday recently. I asked what she would have done had she been able to visit.
“I just would have sung happy birthday to him. I would have been able to get up and dance, you know, and, and me and him probably would have danced together, you know.”
She started dancing in her living room, imagining her absent son. She hasn’t had an in-person visit in almost three years. That’s despite living about a 10-minute drive from the jail.
Her son, like many others, has spent over four years in pretrial detention, and has yet to be convicted of anything. Some people in Davidson County jails are serving felony sentences of up to six years.
Hall says that people should not be serving state prison sentences in local jails in the first place, and that the real problem is the number of delays in the court system.
“Let’s not enable it by making sure they get all the services,” he said. “Let’s deal with the real problem. You shouldn’t be awaiting trial.”
Deaner, though, said she doubts the courts are likely to move any faster because people aren’t getting in-person visits.
The potential and the pitfalls of video visitation
On a broader scale, sheriffs who have adopted video visiting often say video visits reduce contraband and make jails more secure. Studies, though, show that eliminating visitors hasn’t reduced contraband rates, which soared during COVID when prisons were on lockdown. Tennessee prison drug overdoses also spiked.
Jeannie Alexander, executive director of the No Exceptions Prison Collective, describes what happened when Knox County eliminated in-person visiting in 2018.
“What did go up markedly was violent assaults in the jail … visitation means everything. So when you take that away, it’s not unexpected to see violence increase.”
A 2015 report from the Prison Policy Institute documented families’ critiques of video visiting. They said it was more difficult to assess the physical wellbeing of a loved one, particularly as the image quality is often poor. They also noted the expense of calling, and a lack of privacy, since the video terminals are set up in shared areas.
The report also noted that video visits are most common in local jails — where the benefits are fewer. That’s because family members and loved ones tend to live relatively close by, whereas state prisons are often located further away. Researchers also found that when jails added video calls, they didn’t simply make it an extra option — 74% of those jails eliminated in-person visits.
One reason video visiting is more convenient for the sheriff’s office is staffing. Like many sectors, prisons and jails have experienced severe staffing shortages since the pandemic. Attorneys say that on a regular basis when they go to the jail to meet with a client, they are told there’s not enough staff to bring that person up, and they end up doing an on-site video visit.
This presents a problem when there are documents for clients to sign or they need to show them materials on a thumb drive. Attorneys, unlike families, can use free Zoom calls — without screen sharing or chat functions — to talk to their clients.
No one is calling for video visitation to go away. On the contrary, families and advocates say it’s a great option for those who live far away or are otherwise unable to come to a jail.
And for now, Hall says he’s leaving the open the option.
“I don’t think it’s off the table we would do some form of visitation again one day,” he said.
But the sheriff says he would need to see a concerted demand from incarcerated people and their families.