COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A Franklin County jail is eliminating in-person visits between those incarcerated and their guests.

Through a partnership with Viapath Technologies, those behind the bars of the 650-bed Franklin County Corrections Center II in Columbus on Jackson Pike will instead be granted two 20-minute virtual visits – via a tablet assigned to housing units within the jail – to talk with loved ones each week, according to sheriff’s office spokesperson Maureen Kocot.

While some called the change devastating for Franklin County families, others celebrated the logistical convenience that could accompany virtual visits.

“The change will make it possible for you to have more frequent visits with an incarcerated individual without leaving the comfort of your home,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

The introduction of tablets allots 10 additional visiting minutes to those inside the jail, overhauling the current system that provides one 30-minute visit each week through a plexiglass window pane.

It’s partially designed, the sheriff’s office said, to boost the efficiency of deputies within the jail.

“Instead of spending considerable time escorting individuals throughout the facility for scheduled in-person visits, deputies will be more readily available to answer questions and address individual needs,” the sheriff’s office said.

Provided through an existing 2021 contract, Viapath Technologies equipped the county – free of charge – with wired headphones and one tablet for every five people incarcerated in the jail, according to the contract obtained from the Franklin County Board of Commissioners.

Former Columbus resident Ashia Bruton said she was a frequent visitor to the Franklin County jail downtown. A single mom, Bruton visited the father of her newborn daughter as he awaited his trial, and it wasn’t always a pleasant experience, she said.

“You’re talking to them through a plexiglass – the plexiglass, they’re dirty, they’re foggy. You can’t touch the person,” Bruton, founder and CEO of incarcerated parent support nonprofit Unlocking Futures, said. “You have other people who are on that floor that talk louder; you may not be able to hear their loved one.”

Given the spread of the coronavirus – and shoddy communication via the glass window pane – Bruton said she likely would have kept her daughter at home for virtual visits had the option been available at the time.

She argued, however, that virtual visits should be optional, because for some inside the jail, seeing a loved one in the flesh is a valuable view outside the concrete walls of the facility.

“Getting those in-person visits is kind of like the only chance that they have, the only connection they have to the outside world,” Bruton said. 

People incarcerated at the jail can still keep in touch with loved ones via the jail’s telephones for 4 cents a minute, the minimum standard rate set by the Federal Communications Commission, the sheriff’s office said. The tablets can also be used to make phone calls, increasing the ratio of devices per person in the jail.

For $5, visitors can schedule additional virtual visits, beyond the two provided free, with those incarcerated at the corrections center, the sheriff’s office said. Guests that want to visit with someone inside the jail but don’t have internet-capable devices can travel to the jail and use the facility’s tablets.

“It’s important for friends and family to stay connected to their loved ones, and we will provide a transition period from in-person to virtual visits to ensure the change goes as smoothly as possible,” the sheriff’s office said. 

But Dr. Rosemary Martoma, a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, called the elimination of in-person visits “devastating,” particularly for the 1 in 14 children who have an incarcerated parent in the U.S.

Many children don’t have the verbal skills to adequately communicate with a parent, said Martoma, also the president of KidsMates, a non-profit that works to support children of incarcerated parents. Taking away an in-person space – where families can more efficiently read each other’s body language and non-verbal cues – could hurt a child’s ability to connect with a parent, she said.

“Incarcerated parents can and have been and will continue to be a really important part of their children’s lives when it’s helpful,” Martoma said. “It’s very, I think, detrimental to long-term family structures to take away a loving parent or family member and isolate them.”

The concrete and metal make-up of most jails and prisons in the U.S. doesn’t always facilitate the best reception, either, Martoma said. Swapping in-person visits for virtual ones is not a viable replacement, as corrections centers are often “rife with technical difficulties,” she said.

“Even if you’re separated by a glass, you know that you’re going to be able to see that person’s face and you have a certain amount of time,” she said. “There are no promises of what happens inside a (virtual) visit.”

Like Martoma, Dr. Paul Bellair, director of the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State University, echoed the fears about technical problems arising from virtual visits.

But he said it’s a trade-off, as virtual visits might make it easier for those incarcerated to connect with loved ones who otherwise may have had to travel or take time off work to get to the jail. The addition of a second 20-minute window to talk with a loved one, he said, gives those incarcerated another opportunity to connect with those outside the concrete walls of the jail.

“There’s a lot of pros and cons, but I do think a video meeting can be important for maintaining those ties,” Bellair said. “In addition, it doesn’t require that the individual who’s visiting their loved one who’s incarcerated — it doesn’t require them to travel to the jail and deal with those kinds of issues, parking, especially for families that are lower income.”

In an ideal world, Martoma said she would love to see the addition of the video conferencing option to, rather than replacement of, the already existing in-person visits.

“Social isolation takes a toll on the health and mortality of people who are incarcerated,” she said. “I think isolating them even more has to be something that’s done extremely judiciously.”