Care Not Cages: Honor a child's right to hug their jailed parent

The new James A. Karnes Corrections Center slated to open in Franklin County this year will not allow for in-person visits, restricting all contact with the incarcerated to virtual means.
Figure in prison window.
Figure in prison window.Ye Jinghan for Unsplash

This guest opinion piece expresses the views of its author(s).

The new James A. Karnes Corrections Center slated to open this year will do anything but make the community safer and improve mental health. Indeed, the idea that a new jail could benefit anyone’s well-being would be laughable if it weren’t the tragic justification that Franklin County officials have offered for their newly constructed, $360 million jail. This facility for caging human beings – however shiny and new – will do what jails and prisons always do: undermine public safety, worsen community health and separate families.

The new Franklin County jail is slated to open this year. Local officials have told the public that it will be open concept, featuring  “calming murals” and new technology. Officials say the facility will provide mental health services, job training and education. It will “focus on an inmate’s well-being.” 

To be sure, the Sheriff has conceded that “it’s still a jail,” yet no one is fessing up to what is possibly the most brutal aspect of the new jail: It will eliminate any opportunity for family members to visit their loved ones in-person. All “contact” will be virtual, taking place via phone or video, which is both expensive, and surveilled by the county and Viapath, the multi-million-dollar private company that the county hired to provide the technology. 

What this means for families torn apart by the county’s criminal punishment bureaucracy is that children whose parents are locked up in the Franklin County Jail will be prevented from hugging or touching their parents – even if the parent is locked up only because they can’t afford cash bail, and even if they haven’t been convicted.

In our jobs working with the loved ones of people in jail across the country, we have seen firsthand what the robust research shows: in-person family visits are crucial to maintaining an incarcerated person’s family relationships and mental health. Mothers who are locked up report feeling profound distress, depression and guilt at being separated from their children. And straining those relationships has significant impacts on public safety; evidence shows that in-person visits reduce rates of future violence. When in-person visits were banned at the jail in Knox County, Tenn., assaults within the jail increased, and there were more disciplinary infractions. And although a common justification for ending in-person visitation is that doing so will stop the flow of contraband into jails, the same study of Knox County showed that there was no drop in the rate of reported contraband when in-person visits ended.

Nor are phone and video calls an adequate substitute for in-person visits. Children – especially very young children – cannot meaningfully communicate with their parents through phone or video. The connections are typically low-quality and can be interrupted by a bad Wi-Fi signal or other technological problems. People who are disabled or neurodivergent may struggle to use them at all. 

But none of this needs saying. We all lived through the early years of the pandemic and mourned the lost opportunities to hug our families.

There are, however, some beneficiaries of this cruel new system: the county and the company, which stand to profit tremendously from eliminating contact visits. Viapath, formerly known as GTL, is worth more than $1 billion and generates revenue by charging incarcerated people exorbitant rates to keep in touch with their loved ones. Asingle 30-minute video call may cost as much as $12 dollars.

The company goes to great – and perhaps illegal – lengths to protect that profit. In 2018, it paid millions of dollars to settle a lawsuit in which it was accused of bribing officials in Mississippi for lucrative phone contracts. And the company is currently being sued for breaking federal antitrust law to keep the price of jail calls exorbitantly high. Franklin County’s willingness to work with a company like Viapath, which profits off  incarcerated people and their loved ones who are desperate to stay in contact, shows that their interests lie not in the well-being of Franklin County residents but on their own bottom line.

Aside from the harm to families of eliminating visits, and the despicable corporate profiteering the county is authorizing, there’s an even bigger issue here that no one seems to be talking about: Why is Franklin County spending $360 million to cage people at all? And how can they claim to be doing it in the name of public safety? 

Suicide rates in jails are almost four times the rate for people who are free. Research shows that almost 25 percent of people who are jailed pretrial lose their housing. Pretrial detention cuts men’s annual earnings by 40 percent, relegating them to a life of financial insecurity and increasing their chances of recidivating. More directly, research shows that pretrial detention itself causes crime, while releasing more people pretrial causes a decrease in new cases. Local officials in Ohio point to nothing to support their assertion that this new jail will promote public safety or mental health. Nor could they. All of the rigorous, scientific evidence on this point is to the contrary.

Imagine what investments in care instead of cages could provide communities in need. Rather than building the new jail wing, the county should invest in services and community-based organizations that will actually reduce violence and keep Ohioans safe. Currently, more than half of the county’s General Fund is spent on policing, prosecuting and jailing people. Indeed, the cost of the new jail and the sheriff’s annual budget is almost four times the county’s total annual spending on Job and Family Services, Economic Development and Planning, and Community Partnerships combined

But groups already working in Columbus show the benefit of community-based care and services rather than jail. For example, the Columbus Safety Collective pushed Columbus to invest $10 million in a non-police 911 alternative pilot program, which the county has invested $1.2 million to create. The Columbus CARE Coalition provides mental health and social work support to local communities to help them heal after experiencing trauma. And the Central Ohio Freedom Fund gets people out of jail and supports them as they reenter the community. These groups show the potential of community-based programs to make the city  safer and save money that is otherwise spent on jail. The county just needs to invest in them.

County Board of Commission President Erica Crawley has stated that the county budget reflects “the board’s values” and the “community’s priorities.” But it’s unclear to which “community” Commissioner Crawley is referring. The community members we have spoken to do not want their loved ones or neighbors in cages. They want investment in public safety programs that actually work. 

There may still be time to minimize the harm caused by this massive investment in the local caging apparatus. Although the main jail building is already built, the county is still working on an additional wing that would hold more than 400 people. The county should halt its construction of that wing and instead invest the construction money in community-based mental health, job training, and social support programs; release people who are jailed just because they can’t afford cash bail; and reinstate in-person family visitation for those who they detain.

The County Board of Commissioners knows that a budget is a statement of values. If Franklin County values community and safety, it should invest in care and community – not cages. Even bright, shiny new ones cause unspeakable harm.

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