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'The New Yorker': Do children have a “right to hug” their parents?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If there's one thing that's changed in recent years, it's how many people communicate over screens. But as kids and parents know, screen time is no substitute for a parent's hugs, and yet hundreds of counties across the United States have stopped in-person visits at local jails. They're replacing them with video calls, and families of people incarcerated in these jails have to pay for them. Some of these families are now challenging the practice, arguing they have a legal right to visit their loved ones in person. Sarah Stillman reported on the issue for the New Yorker, where she's a staff writer. She pointed out that hundreds of jails stopped in-person visits long before the COVID pandemic. I asked her why.

SARAH STILLMAN: I started finding that really all around the country, a lot of jails had started getting commissions from these big private companies who were offering them the chance to, once they eliminated in-person visits, get commercial video visits instead.

MARTIN: And people have to pay for this.

STILLMAN: Exactly. So the families are the ones who pay. They deposit money to the company, and then the counties and the jails often get a portion of the funds as well.

MARTIN: One of the reasons I think this might be surprising to people is that people may remember that there was legislation a couple of years ago capping the fees that people could be charged to talk to their loved ones in federal prisons. How does this practice persist in local jails?

STILLMAN: These county jails say this is the way for them to deal with the fact that they have low staffing, so they claimed that oftentimes it was a way to prevent contraband, but I think we've pretty clearly seen in the pandemic in places where they eliminated in-person visits that contraband was still coming into the facilities, often through the guards. So it seems like mostly this has been about an opportunity for both the companies and the counties to make money off of families that are desperate to see and talk to their loved ones.

MARTIN: You started your story with a family in Michigan. Could you just talk a little bit about the situation for this family and why you think their experience matters?

STILLMAN: Yeah, I got to know two teenage girls, Le'Essa and Addy Hill, and their dad was incarcerated in the county jail. I think one thing that's important to note is that their dad and most of the other families I met were actually there pre-trial, so they hadn't even been convicted of any crime, but their family had to go through a lot of sacrifice to even just be able to pay the bills to talk with their dad. And they told me it had a pretty profound effect on their own sense of well being, to the point that they would literally sometimes drive to the county jail and just stand outside the window of the jail, just hoping they could glimpse their dad, and their dad would try to come to the window and wave to them or do hand communication signals, like I love you, through the window of the jail.

MARTIN: I think some people might ask, how is this legal to deny people the opportunity to see someone if they can't pay?

STILLMAN: Right. Well, what's remarkable about the two girls I met is that they want to challenge exactly that point. So they decided to be part of a lawsuit that just got filed in Michigan. There's two new lawsuits that argue that this is actually illegal based on the Michigan state constitution, where you have a guarantee of family integrity and you have a due process right. Kids themselves are saying, we didn't even get accused of committing any crime, and we believe that we have the right to be able to see our parents. Because they've also really clearly shown in the research that the physical touch of a loved one can be an incredibly important source of psychological well being for kids and to be separated has real consequences for those relationships in the short- and long-term.

MARTIN: That is Sarah Stillman, staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine. Sarah Stillman, thank you so much for talking with us.

STILLMAN: Yeah, thanks so much for spending the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.