This morning I visited an inmate I met at the weekly Bible study I do in our county jail. Through the chaplain, she requested a visit and through the chaplaincy program, I am able to come and visit her by means of video communications. While I waited for her to be brought to the designated room — her end of the two-way video conference — I watched the instructional video on the kiosk in the jail lobby. The video provides directions for those who wish to schedule video visitations with inmates. A company called Telmate administers the program. They allow inmates to connect with friends and loved ones via email messages, phone calls, photo sharing, and video visits — for a cost. Regardless of your opinion about whether inmates should have such rights, it got me thinking. What if I had to interact with my friends and loved ones in this manner?

It Takes Effort

You must schedule your video visits via the online system or using the kiosk in the jail lobby. Your visit will happen not at your pleasure or convenience, but only during one of the available time slots. Before one can even schedule a visit, an account must be created and funds deposited. Once that is completed, there are about 20 steps to follow to schedule and confirm the visitation time slot. If at any time while those 20 steps are being completed, someone else completes the confirmation process for that slot, you lose the slot and start over.

Once the visitation time slot is confirmed, you must either login at the designated time from home (in the case of a remote video visit), or drive to the jail and get logged into one of the video terminals in the Lobby. Once when I was in the jail lobby waiting to be taken back for our Bible study, I witnessed a mother visiting her recently incarcerated 18-year-old son for the first time using this process. She was nervous, anxious, and uncomfortable with technology. Several times, she mis-entered her password and had to start over. By the time she finally got logged into the system and established a connection, she had lost 10 precious minutes with her son.

When I want to speak to my husband, daughter, mother, sister, friend, etc., I can pick up my cell phone and call or fire off a quick text. I can message them on facebook. I can send an email. Heck — I can drive to them. It’s pretty easy, really, to stay connected. Imagine instead, you had to follow this process to visit a friend or loved one:

It Costs Money

Video visits cost money — around $7.50 for a half-hour visit. You want extra time? Deposit extra funds. If a visitation is cancelled more than 24 hours in advance (via the same system used to schedule the visit in the first place), the time is credited to the account for future use, but no money is refunded. If the visitation is cancelled less than 24 hours in advance, no credit is given at all. If you miss a scheduled visit for any reason, too bad. If you are late for a visit, you lose that time — the 30-minute clock starts at the designated time, not when you actually arrive or establish a connection.

What if I had to pay for time with my friends and loved ones? What if missing an appointment or being late for a coffee date meant I forfeited that money and the time? Would I value that time more? Would I be more intentional about being there for the time I have with loved ones?

It is Impersonal

I know that for many military families, this is a way of life, but imagine the only interaction you could have with your loved ones was through video conferencing. I’ve experienced this when visiting inmates. Sometimes, the image isn’t very clear. Sometimes, if you have a poor connection, the stream is choppy and delayed. It can be difficult to hear, especially if there is a lot of ambient noise on either end. Sometimes, if the camera isn’t adjusted, I spend my time talking to someone’s chin or forehead. Even when the camera is focused and the connection is good, there is no physical touch. You can’t hug, hold hands, or kiss your loved one goodbye.

I kiss my husband goodbye every morning and hello every evening, perhaps out of habit as much as anything anymore. It’s only when I imagine losing that privilege that I begin to fully appreciate it.

So, What’s My Point?

I’m not criticizing the system or the Telmate company. This private company has taken over the administration of the visitation process, alleviating some of the pressure on an overburdened public safety staff. The technology and equipment costs money and the company has the right to make a profit for the service they provide. Video visitation is a safer alternative to personal visits, reducing the amount of contraband brought into the prison system. Recorded visits monitor communications, making it more difficult to pass criminal information. While the process is cumbersome and the policies restrictive, the fact is, incarcerated individuals do not have the same privileges as those who are free.

What I am criticizing is my own nonchalant attitude toward the time I have with my loved ones. I don’t have to purchase visitations with my family at the rate of $7.50 for 30 minutes, but does that make my family time cheap? If I get home from work 30 minutes late, I don’t necessarily forfeit my entire evening with my family, but does that mean a work/family time balance is not important? I have the freedom to kiss my husband, hug my daughter, and touch the shoulder of a friend to comfort her nearly every single day. Does that make those physical touches any less special? Too often, my attitude would indicate that my answers to these questions is “yes.” I hope it doesn’t take a stay in the clink to change that.

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