Calif. limits video-only visits for county jail inmates
Video visits are still allowed under the new rules, but in-person meetings must be offered in addition
By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California regulators pushed back Thursday against what had been a growing movement to end in-person visits in county jails.
Future jails must include space for face-to-face visits, the Board of State and Community Corrections decided on a 7-2 vote.
Five of the state's 58 counties have no in-person jail visits. Five more counties have no in-person visits in at least one jail, and 10 counties are building jails that will have no room for in-person visits, the board found in a survey.
The new regulation applies only to future jails, not the ones under construction.
It also immediately bars sheriffs from adopting new policies that ban in-person visits, but doesn't affect existing policies.
Sheriffs have been shifting to remote video visitation that can save space, requires fewer employees and deter smuggling.
Sheriffs and the board's staff said video visits can also be valuable for families that would have to travel long distances to visit a loved one, although families are often billed for long-distance electronic visitations. The board said remote visitation usually costs from $5 to $15 for every 20 minutes, depending on the county, though there is no charge for families that travel to jails and visit with their loved ones over onsite video monitors.
Video visits are still allowed under the new rules, but in-person meetings must be offered in addition.
The board and state lawmakers have been encouraging personal visits that they say are healthier and promote rehabilitation.
"The use of video had become more widespread," board chairwoman Linda Penner said after the vote. "The regulation today really draws a line in the sand" while recognizing that retrofitting existing jails or changing jail construction plans would be very expensive.
Gov. Jerry Brown last year vetoed a bill by Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell, of Los Angeles, which would have required sheriffs to provide in-person visits at all jails by 2022.
The California State Sheriffs' Association was the lone listed opponent to her bill but did not oppose the board's regulations.
"This does take some sheriffs' autonomy away but it also strikes a careful balance," association spokesman Cory Salzillo said after the vote. "We understand it's a sensitive issue."
Two law enforcement oversight committees led by Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner, of Berkeley, plan a hearing on video visitation next week.
Skinner said the board's decision does not go far enough and that her committees will now consider "appropriate next steps."
Lawmakers moved in recent years to keep lower-level offenders in county jails instead of state prisons, in part so they can be closer to their families, she said.
"Why then would we create a circumstance where their families cannot visit them? And video visitation is not the same as a family visit," said Skinner, who also is upset at the cost to families for remote visitation.
A coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union, Prison Law Office, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, and Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice had urged the board to require sheriffs to eventually begin allowing in-person visits at all their jails.
Inmates who have in-person visits have fewer discipline problems, are more likely to get a job and are less likely to commit new crimes, the groups said in a joint letter to the board. It strengthens family connections and particularly helps children deal with having a parent behind bars.