The blog that wasn't: DOC backs off anti-visitation policy

After the Department of Corrections announced that it had purchased $500,000 in teleconferencing equipment and would be suspending face-to-face visits with death row inmates, the complaints came in.  The ACLU complained, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty complained, and more importantly, people complained.   Still, knowing DOC as we do, we had begun to accept the inevitable—that the policy would be implemented on September 1 as scheduled.  Then the surprise came: DOC announced that it was not going to implement the policy.

The blog below, planned for release the day before the policy was to take effect, is about the context of policy, what was wrong with it, and how it so unfortunately dovetailed with Virginia’s outdated attitude toward the death penalty.  The latter observation still applies.

The death penalty is cruel, and in Virginia it just got crueler

By Kent Willis, Executive Director
Starting September 1, relatives of inmates on Virginia’s death row will no longer be able to visit their loved ones face to face.  Instead, mom, wife, son or daughter will bask in the warm glow of a video screen as they say hello or goodbye, as the case may be, to dad.
With this new policy, Virginia becomes the second state--credit Kansas with being the first--to trade contact or glass-partitioned visits for a computer screen.
The Virginia Department of Corrections says the new system was conceived to make visits more efficient and increase security on death row.  I think it comes from a mean-spirited place embedded deep in the culture of DOC.
For years, DOC has adopted policies that undermine rehabilitation, degrade prisoners, and have only the most tenuous connection to prison security.  Recent policies enacted by DOC include prohibitions on printed materials sent by relatives or friends, bans on spoken-word CDs, and of course, the infamous restrictions on hair and beards that have put a large number of Rastafarians and Muslims in segregation for years.
Virginia has fewer than a dozen individuals on death row.  Given the trends in capital punishment in Virginia and across the nation, that number will likely decrease in the coming years.  Yet, DOC is spending $500,000 on new video equipment to keep family members in separate rooms from each other.
There are still 35 death penalty states, although most have not executed anyone in years.  About a third of these states still permit direct contact visits, while two-thirds require visitors to be separated by a glass partition.  Only Virginia and Kansas deny both.
California and Florida are among the states that allow contact visits.  The former has about 700 death row inmates, the latter about 400.  If these and all the other death penalty states can manage face-to-face visits, why can’t Virginia?
Whatever our feelings about capital punishment, death row inmates are humans and we live in a civilized society.  Punishing individuals condemned to death by preventing them from having any real contact with the few people who love them unconditionally is coldly indifferent.
But the people hurt most by this heartless policy are family members.  They have committed no crime.  They are about to lose forever someone close to them.  Yet they will have no opportunity for a face-to-face visit with their brother, father, son or husband, even when death is imminent.  They are the real victims of this policy.
Over the last half-century, every developed western democracy, save us, has done away with the death penalty.  And while the Supreme Court has not banned it altogether, in the last ten years it has ruled that executing teens and mentally disabled persons is cruel and unusual.
The death penalty serves no societal purpose.  It is more expensive than life imprisonment.  It does not deter crime.  And, it is the one penalty that cannot be reversed once it has been carried out.
It is not likely that the death penalty will disappear in the U.S. overnight.  Instead, it will continue to erode over time until it is, for all practical purposes, unrecognizable.  The Supreme Court may declare more categories of people and crimes off limits.  Fewer and fewer death penalty prosecutions will occur, as they are extremely expensive, serve no societal purpose, and we are losing our stomach for them.
Virginia is different.  As the death penalty fades almost everywhere else, legislators here still find it necessary to try to expand the death penalty each year.  As for DOC, it is still operating on an outdated model of corrections that prompts unnecessary and thoughtless polices like substituting video conferences for face-to-face visits with relatives.