On a chilly Sunday evening in December, a smattering of parents and small children trickled into a graffiti-covered concrete building on the grounds of the DC Jail. It was the last day to visit with prisoners before Christmas Eve, and some of the visitors were wearing Santa hats or bearing presents. The only thing missing was inmates. Three years ago, Washington, DC, eliminated in-person visitation for the roughly 1,800 residents of its jails and installed 54 video-conferencing screens in this building across the parking lot from the detention facility. The screens were installed, at no expense to taxpayers, by a Virginia-based company called Global Tel*Link (GTL), which had scored a lucrative contract for the facility's phone service.
Now the only way families in the capital can see their loved ones in jail—many of whom have not yet been convicted of a crime and will be shipped out of state if they are—is to sit in front of a webcam for 45 minutes. (Two free weekly visits are allotted.) The video on the laptop-size screens often lags, creating an echo effect. It's a cold, impersonal way to speak with someone a few hundred feet away. The effect, the Washington Post editorial board charged, has been "to punish prisoners and families."