ALFRED — Attention has been drawn to the lack of contact visits in Maine’s county jails, and a recent editorial in the Portland Press Herald (“Our View: Video visits won’t solve major challenges at Maine’s county jails,” Jan. 13) linked contact visits with rehabilitation.

Contact visits are more meaningful and fulfilling; however, in Maine there are valid socioeconomic reasons why contact visits are being replaced with video visitations in county jails.

The editorial acknowledged that security concerns were the main driver of video visits with an ancillary benefit of savings. The writer contended that the rehabilitative factor associated with contact visits reduces recidivism, thus reducing costs in the long run. That may be true; however, an important distinction needs to be made between Maine’s state prisons and county jails.

Let’s start with the expense. At the York County Jail, monitoring several inmates having contact visits requires inmates to be searched after each visit. It also requires the visitors to pass through a metal detector upon entry and to be monitored throughout the visit. Not all visits end at the same time, so extra officers must be available to escort the inmates back to their pods.

At least two dedicated staff members are needed for contact visits, and several other officers are given additional duties during their shift, which may delay other inmates from receiving their prescribed medication or immediately having a sick call visit.

In a facility that is perennially short staffed, contact visits are usually overseen by employees who are working overtime. That adds up quickly when the base overtime pay for correction officers is $28 an hour.

The opioid crisis in Maine also contributed to the decision to implement video visitation at York County. During the summer of 2015, the jail had four non-fatal drug overdoses.

There are several ways drugs may be introduced into a jail, and most are beyond officers’ control. For example, there are strict guidelines for performing a strip search of an inmate, and cavity searches may be performed only by medical personnel. Secreting drugs in or on one’s body is the leading way that contraband is introduced into a secure facility. Limiting contact visits is one method to keep inmates from receiving drugs.

The sad truth is that most inmates in York County’s 300-bed facility are battling some form of addiction. In 2016, 20 percent of the more than 3,000 intakes that we processed were placed on a withdrawal protocol for either alcohol or opioid addiction. On any given day, a dozen inmates (on average) are going through some phase of opioid withdrawal, which involves about 72 hours of vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and headaches.

Staff nurses provide non-prescription painkillers to ease the discomfort during these non-deadly withdrawals. Unfortunately, inmates will sometimes convince family members to deliver more potent illegal or illicit drugs to them. Mothers, fathers and grandparents are pressured to contact potentially dangerous drug dealers – for the purpose of unlawfully delivering drugs to their incarcerated loved one.

Even those inmates who aren’t involved in illegal drugs are pressured to break the law by addicted inmates. The addict strong-arms the fellow inmate to get members of their family to bring in contraband to feed the addict’s habit. Because of these unlawful demands, family members are known to stay away from their incarcerated loved ones. Video visitations take the pressure off some family members.

The Press Herald editorial cites a Maine Public Radio report in which a family member states that visits to the Maine State Prison are more enjoyable than visits to the York County Jail because the prison allows contact visits.

Again, let’s not lose sight of the jail’s function: It’s a short-term or transitional housing unit. Offenders at the Maine State Prison have been sentenced; the vast majority of those at Maine’s jails have not. By the time an offender is sent to prison, they are detoxed and hopefully on their way to recovery.

Once an inmate is delivered to the Maine State Prison, state officials complete an extensive background investigation and those inmates receive services to include counseling. Self-help groups and other programming are made available, and contact visits in the prison environment are an integral part of the rehabilitative process.

Maine sheriffs are operating jails where security is constantly being challenged by gang-affiliated drug dealers. Sheriffs are operating the jails at 2008 funding levels (created when the Board of Corrections implemented a tax cap on jail budgets). Consequently, we are forced to look for every legal way to cut expenses. Replacing contact visits with video visitations is a logical, if unpopular, solution.

 


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