Video conferencing is transforming modern life, lowering the geographical barrier to accessing services ranging from higher education to specialized health care. But for people behind bars, the video technology that’s being embraced by a growing number of Maine’s county jails doesn’t go far enough toward maintaining family ties.

Three Maine jails have video visiting in place (Somerset County; Two Bridges Regional, serving Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, and York County), and three others (Androscoggin, Cumberland and Hancock) are considering adopting the technology, according to Maine Public Radio.

Two Bridges and York County have eliminated in-person family visits entirely. Instead, inmates are in a separate room in the jail during visits and communicate with their loved ones through video cameras. Somerset still allows in-person visits, but they’re non-contact: Inmates and their loved ones cannot touch and are separated by glass.

The reason for the policy shift? Jail administrators point to the need to arrest the steady flow of contraband entering the jail through means as innocuous as a baby’s diaper or a quick kiss. (In a high-profile incident at Two Bridges, an Episcopal priest was convicted of smuggling Suboxone to two inmates; more recently, a Cumberland County inmate died of an overdose of smuggled drugs.) Officials also cite the expenses involved in paying jail staff to supervise visits.

All of these are valid concerns. The number of Mainers struggling to overcome addiction to heroin and other opioids has soared in recent years, and it’s no coincidence that drug arrests and the jail population have increased, too. But eliminating contact visits won’t mitigate the drug crisis that’s filling the jail cells. Achieving that mission calls for investing more money in drug detoxification and medication-assisted addiction treatment, through measures like expanding Medicaid eligiblity and keeping the Affordable Care Act in place.

Strong family ties help keep inmates focused on rehabilitation and release. And when they get out — as most inmates eventually do — decades of studies show that those with these connections are far less likely to re-offend and end up back in jail, driving up corrections costs (paid for by taxpayers). It’s common sense: Someone who has ties to the community will value their place in it enough to want to stay there and become a productive citizen. We all benefit from contact visits — which is reason enough to consider whether the short-term gain of eliminating them is worth the long-term risk.

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