Public libraries, as part of their public service and outreach initiatives, regularly reach out to the prison community to help reintegrate and reinvigorate the incarcerated, hoping to also lessen the chance of recidivism. The Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) has taken the matter one step further by opening up a video visitation center in its central location for families of the imprisoned to communicate with each other for free. A visitation then becomes an opportunity for a family to share stories, to read together, to play together. The BPL has set up mirrored spaces where both the prisoner and the family members have the same games, toys, and books available to them. With the help of the almost $400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation for this innovative concept, the BPL will open at least another twelve more video visitation spaces in other branches that serve low-income communities with high levels of incarceration.,
Nick Higgins, director of Outreach Services at Brooklyn Public Library, started this “TeleStory” program in 2014. He had previous experience working as a librarian at Rikers Island for a few years and proceeded to work closely with the Department of Corrections to turn visitation rooms, used primarily for video chats with attorneys, into a warm and welcoming environment for prisoners to video chat with their families. The process to schedule a “visit” is fairly simple: The family of the incarcerated gives the BPL forty-eight hours’ notice before a desired visit so that the appropriate paperwork can be filled out and the visit can be arranged and scheduled. The demand, however, has gone up so much that some families have had to be turned away, so the additional TeleStory stations will alleviate the lack of resources and bring more families together.
What BPL is doing is not just innovative but also incredibly necessary. As more and more prisons are doing away with in-person visits and favoring video visitation instead, they are also charging family members of the incarcerated about a dollar per minute for the privilege to communicate with each other. For low-income communities with high incarceration rates, the cost of communication/contact with imprisoned family members can leave a family deeply in debt, furthering the incarceration cycle; “Poverty, in particular, perpetuates the cycle of incarceration, while incarceration itself leads to greater poverty.”
Although it has been statistically shown that the more in-person prison visits an individual receives, the less likely they are to return to prison by violating their parole or re-offending after release, prisons continue to remove in-person visits in order to save money. Texas has been a prime example of this phenomenon: Texas legislators passed bill HB 549 in May of 2015, which stated that prisons must “provide each prisoner at a county jail with a minimum of two in-person, noncontact visitation periods per week of at least 20 minutes duration each.” At least twenty-two counties in Texas have since won an exemption to the bill, thereby confining visits to video chats only. And they are continuing to charge exorbitant prices, sometimes as much as thirty dollars for twenty minutes of communication.
The battle for in-person visitation is beginning to move towards other states. It’s clear that the tele-visit is not only staying but is the only option for some families. The fact that the BPL is creating a safe and affordable space for families takes away some of the toll, both financial and emotional, that incarceration puts on the incarcerated and their families, hopefully abating the damage of the poverty-prison cycle.