One of the responsibilities of the General Assembly that I have been focusing on more and more over the past several sessions is criminal justice reform. I was successful in my drive to mandate that incarcerated women in Virginia be provided menstrual products as needed without charge.
In the 2020 session I passed legislation ensuring that proper medical care for pregnant inmates and for those who have given birth while in prison is readily available; and that visitation policies (time, frequency, age of visitor) are family-centered when appropriate.
Since the outset of the Covid-19 health and economic state of emergency, I have learned that many families are struggling to maintain personal contact with their incarcerated members. This connection is especially critical now when in-person visits are not permitted. Widely available video visitation is a reasonable response to this need.
The federal government and some states (Minnesota, South Carolina, Pennsylvania) have already developed, or are in the final stages of developing, programs enabling the incarcerated and their families to remain connected.
Family video visits offer an effective strategy for facilitating re-entry and preventing recidivism. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and her colleagues have cited a study entitled, “The Family and Recidivism”: Studies have demonstrated that family contact is a valuable source of support during incarceration and that those who regularly connect with family members experience lower rates of recidivism after release.
Virginia currently works with a successful pre-release program, Assisting Families of Inmates (AFOI), AFOI organizes and arranges for family video visits with inmates. AFOI’s program is made possible because of those who generously volunteer their time. However, the cost of these video visits is prohibitive for many families — a problem that severely limits the reach and effectiveness of the program. Family members engaging in these visits are charged $8 for 20 minutes and up to $20 for 50 minutes. This can become a cost that most of the families cannot meet as the pandemic continues unabated. Consider that video visits via Zoom available to non-incarcerated Virginians are free for 40 minutes or less and for $12.50/month can include up to 100 participants for an unlimited number of visits.
At this time, there are not enough volunteers or enough contributed resources to handle the existing needs for video visits in our prisons through the Family Prison Video Visits facilitated by Global Tel Link (GTL).
And GTL has its problems, as evidenced by the class action suit filed against it in Maryland for allegedly inflating the cost of calls. A reasonable solution to this increasingly dire situation is to direct federal (TANF) funds already allocated to Virginia to support the families who would benefit from video visits with incarcerated family members.
I am working with Senator Adam Ebbin to draft and file budget amendments which allocate at least $250 of those funds to expand the AFOI programs to areas of the state currently without any video visitation programs.
Not only is this a humane course of action, but also a prudent way to invest in positive re-entry experiences when those incarcerated are released back into their communities.
Best wishes during the upcoming holiday season. May it bring renewed hope for the future. I wish you continued good health and the fortitude necessary to carry on during these challenging times.