COVID-19 might have further ruptured Christian unity as we debated mandatory vaccines and masking, but there’s one thing we can all agree on based on our experiences over Covidtide: Video calls are a bad substitute for human presence.
True, a video call is better than being out of contact altogether. But there’s a reason that our antipathy to the technology grew over the past two years even as video resolution improved and “You’re muted” reminders became less frequent. God made us as bodies, created to be among and loved by other bodies. It is not good for man to be alone, or remote.
One group has been struggling with this reality longer than most of us: the incarcerated.
Long before the coronavirus, it was already hard for most incarcerated people to receive visitors. In 2015, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) found that only 31 percent of people in state prisons had received a visitor other than a lawyer in a typical month. The main reason is distance, as prisons continue to be built in remote areas. In state prisons, nearly two-thirds of the population is incarcerated more than 100 miles from home. In federal prisons, the average distance is 500 miles.
If families and friends can make the drive, there’s some good news: State prisons generally don’t ban human contact, even if many have limited hours or days that they allow visits. Jails have been another matter. PPI found that 74 percent of jails banned in-person visits when they implemented video visitation. One of the leading companies in the $1.4 billion-a-year prison telecommunication industry even required facilities to “eliminate all face to face visitation.” They dropped the requirement when PPI exposed it, but their contracts still incentivize restrictions by raising costs significantly if the number of video visits falls below a certain threshold.
Requiring the worst of both worlds, many facilities with video-only visits still make family members drive to the facility. “It’s just too much frustration to come down here, wait for an hour and then only get 25 minutes for a not-so-good call,” Ashika Coleman, who is incarcerated in Texas, told Prison Fellowship. “I think the hassle is why people don’t visit me as much anymore.”
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that in-person visits matter. One notable study from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that visitation—even just receiving one visit—reduced recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and 25 percent for technical violations. There’s little research on video visits so far, but one recent study suggests they may not have much effect on recidivism.
Advocacy for in-person visits is working. Increased attention to restrictions has caused some jails to rethink their policies, and many made calls free during the pandemic. Some elected sheriffs have made restoring in-person visitation a winning campaign issue. The FCC is becoming more involved in reducing the cost of prison telecommunications. In October, California governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would establish in-person visits as a civil right but increased prison visitation from two days a week to three and said he’d welcome other efforts to expand in-person visits.
Visiting the incarcerated has long been a passion for those who take Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 seriously and for those who know that men and women in prisons and jails are just as human and beloved by Jesus as the children in our Sunday schools. Likewise, Christians have been passionate about policies that promote healthy families and that transform healthy communities through transformed lives. Making sure that jails replace video with visits should be a unifying political priority for us.
Still, inhumane policies and our new awareness of the dangers of isolation are more than an opportunity to advocate for personal visits. They can also be an opportunity to seriously consider being those personal visits.
This isn’t a call to drop in to a prison once or twice for a Sunday service to check off a Matthew 25 box. As Charles Colson told this magazine after his brief incarceration, “That’s the worst thing Christians can do.” Offering spiritual niceties without commitment, without sacrifice, without mutuality is a poor simulacrum, as distant from embodied relationship as a low-quality video visit.
Not every Christian is called to long-term relationships with prisoners, just as not every Christian is called to marriage or parenthood. But more of us are called than have answered. COVID-19’s exasperating loneliness and frustration don’t have to be wasted. We now see our need to visit. There are prisoners who need visiting.
Ted Olsen is executive editor of Christianity Today.
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