From the experience of a father’s forgiveness expressed with the pat of a hand, to a mother fixing your hair before the homecoming dance, to a brother holding you back from a schoolyard fight, our relationships with others are comprised of our shared sensory experiences. These formative life moments consist of presence; that irreplaceable feeling of having someone you love in the room with you, looking you in the eyes.
Incarceration removes individuals from their loved ones’ lives and isolates them from the world they once knew. Visitation policies have changed over the decades. From the once relatively lax (and free) table visitations of earlier in the 20th century, the act has been moved behind Plexiglas, on landlines, and recently been overtaken by a slightly more pixelated equivalent of Skype, to the tune of six dollars for a half hour, limited to twice a week. That’s in Knox County, Tennessee: where, in order to cut a profit off video software, Knox County contracted with Securus Technologies to end all in-person visits in the county jail.
In largely cash-poor Central Appalachian communities, prisons, local government and industry have combined forces to find ways to profit by emptying the coffers of county commissions. In Letcher County, $444 million went to the construction of a new prison on the site of an old strip mine. The so-called “Gulag Archipelago,” a network of high-security prisons, is scattered across Appalachia in this way, making use of open space, desperate and cash-poor local government, and an abundance of privately traded land. The prison-industrial complex here extends deep into carceral life, from catering of food (often Aramark) to the production of cheap fabrics and electrical products, road maintenance, and even cheese. Sometimes they profit from certain immigration policies; Sheriff J. J. Jones, who espoused the Securus contract, has made overtures to collaborate with ICE in the past, saying he is eager to “stack (immigrants) like cordwood”.
In Knoxville, Nathan Light, originally of Memphis, spent his childhood with an incarcerated father. His father passed away during that time, and so Nathan’s last memories with his father are of seeing him through prison Plexiglas, wishing they could hold one another, even touch hands.
“I didn’t get a last hug,” Light said of his father, who was a preacher before his incarceration. “The last time I saw him it was through the bulletproof glass of a visitation booth. The last time I heard his voice was through a two way phone.”
Nathan was horrified to hear about the new visitation developments in Knox County. “How can our government be so callous? How can they justify this needless pain?” he said at a rally in Knoxville last month, his words quiet but emphatic. “Nothing can replace seeing someone in front of you with your own eyes, even from behind bulletproof glass.”
Had Nathan grown up in Knox County in 2017, the process of maintaining communication with his father would look a lot more complicated. First, he would have had to sign up for an account with Securus. He and his father would have had to make it work during one of the two preset times per week he was available. Nathan would have a choice: to stay home and pay, or to drive to the crowded kiosks at the jail and speak with his father, on video, from within the same building, for free. If Nathan’s bandwidth is low at home – if, for instance, he lives in a rural area or cannot afford high-speed internet – the video might cut out. There are no refunds, no call-backs. If the video cuts out fifteen minutes in, you still pay $6. If Nathan or his father are late to the pre-assigned visit, there is no overtime. The jail’s website warns call participants not to make “large movements,” as this may cause the video to lag. Under Sheriff Jones’ direction, Securus also sells tablets to inmates for $425 each, which they must purchase from commissary. No social media apps are allowed, but they can use them to book haircuts.
East Tennessee jails have said that video visitation is a “win-win,” making money for poor counties, reducing trade in illicit materials, and allowing for increased surveillance of inmates. In Hamblen County, Tennessee, where Securus contracted before Knox County, a 2011 article quotes Lt. Craig Cloer: “Liability’s down, contraband is in control, and we don’t have to fix windows anymore.” Furthermore, local deputies can turn off the inmates’ camera if they ask for a “private-part peek,” as they term it.
According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, Tennessee incarcerates 740 out of every 100,000 people, well above the international average of 151 per 100,000. The majority of these people, as in everywhere in the United States, are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. In the county jails, many incarcerated people are not necessarily convicted; they are simply too poor to pay bail, and thus awaiting trial behind bars.
According to the No Exceptions Prison Collective, a Tennessee-based research and advocacy organization, the end of in-person visits does not mean the end of infractions. Contraband still makes the rounds behind bars. Recidivism does not decrease; in fact, it increases. Face to Face Knoxville, a project of the collective, is currently working to overturn the Knox County rules.
Knox is not the first county to make this bargain, and it won’t be the last; neither are its people the first to fight back. Securus’ victory is no mandate: in some counties, in-person visits have been reinstated, and co-exist with video calls.
In Austin, Texas this past fall, lawmakers mandated that each inmate receive two twenty-minute in-person visits per week. In the time that video-only visits were instated, infractions shot up, and the money counties made didn’t seem to make up for the trouble. Ultimately, though, what was most disturbing were not the economic implications of the policy, but the personal.
Nathan Light did not even try to offer facts and figures for his case. His knowledge is not based in years of pouring over the law; it’s based in the heart. “All I ask today is that we have some compassion,” said Nathan, as the January chill raised goosebumps on the activists gathered outside the City-County Building. “Not just for the prisoners, but for their families and children as well, because I know first hand that all they want, all they need to keep going, is a little more than just Facetime.” With that he popped his collar up against the bitter wind and exited the podium.
Katie Myers (@stopitkatie) is a writer, community organizer, and arts educator residing in Knoxville, Tennessee.