Businesses seeking to profit from the exponential expansion of our nation’s prison population are now turning to visitation. Florida-based JPay is implementing its “video-conference visitation” in Indiana’s prison system, while other companies, such as einmate.com, are developing similar prison-based video visitation programs.
The use of technology for prison visits has its benefits. For prisoners, the latest generation of video conferencing puts them right into their family or friends’ homes, allowing them to see things they could never view in the sterile, drab atmosphere of a prison visiting room.
“I feel like I’m at home, kind of,” said Indiana prisoner Candace McCann. “It’s good to see that kind of stuff.” Video visitation allows McCann to see her seven-year-old daughter, Kashmir, every Sunday morning. In addition to saving her family a three-hour drive and the costs associated with such lengthy trips, McCann is able to watch her daughter model new clothes and show off her toys through live streaming video.
Prison officials prefer video visitation due to its security features. Video visits allow monitoring in real-time or via re-cording while eliminating the possibility of contraband entering the facility. The video visitation service being developed by einmate.com, for example, “seeks to limit physical visitation,” which “increases security and cuts costs.” Expanded video visits may have a positive effect on prisoners, too. “When they have contact with the outside family they actually behave better here at the facility,” said Richard Brown, assistant superintendent at Indiana’s Rockville Correctional Facility (RCF).
To participate in a video-conference visit, a prisoner logs into a JPay kiosk. At RCF there is one kiosk for every 75 prisoners. The kiosk has a video camera, a screen that allows prisoners to view streaming video, and a phone that lets them talk with their “visitor.” Video visitors must have a webcam to participate, and must be pre-approved by prison officials. A secure video conference connection is established between the prison kiosk and the visitor’s webcam at their home.
This approach differs from the type of video visitation typically offered at prisons and jails, which usually requires visitors to travel to a central location such as a church or the facility itself to participate in video visits. The First Refuge Bap-tist Church in Camden, New Jersey, for instance, has been offering video visitation with prisoners at the Camden County jail since 2005.
JPay covers the expense of installing the kiosks at no cost to the prison system. However, the company has established rates for video visitation similar to the exorbitant cost of collect-only prisoner phone calls, which is approximately $15 for 30 minutes at RCF. The price of a 30-minute video-conference visit through JPay is $12.50. The company also provides email services at prisons in seven states. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.24].
Currently only RCF has installed JPay’s video visitation kiosks, but all 28,000 Indiana prisoners are expected to have access to video-conference visits within four years. The program is expected to expand to the Kansas prison system in 2010. A number of jails are switching to video visitation, too, though such visits are usually held onsite at the facility and simply replace in-person visitation. Jails in Washburn County, Wisconsin; Yakima County, Washington; and Collin County, Texas have replaced in-person visits with video visits. “This was the most efficient and feasible way for us to maintain our daily operations,” said Collin County jail Capt. Jim Moody.
The Pinellas County jail in Florida is going one step further, by equipping a bus with five laptops to use as a mobile video conferencing center for prisoners’ family members and friends. “This will give us some relief [from visits at the jail] and at the same time provide a service to the community to those who can’t afford to drive all the way out here or don’t have transportation,” stated Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats.
Prison video visitation is not actually new, though the increased interest in creating for-profit video services for prisoners represents a novel twist on the concept. The Pennsylvania Family Virtual Visitation program, which was created in 2001 though a partnership between the Prison Society and the Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections, allowed prisoners to visit with their families via video-conferencing. Florida’s prison system implemented a program called “Reading and Family Ties – Face to Face” in February 2000, which let women prisoners read books to their children through teleconferencing over the Internet.
Former Virginia prisoner Carolyn LeCroy, who saw a need for video visits for incarcerated parents, founded her own program after she was released. “When I was in prison, and I would get visits, I would come back to the floor, and I would see the women who never got visits,” she said. “And they were always depressed and unhappy.”
LeCroy started The Messages Project in December 1999, to record videotaped messages from prisoners at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women; the videos were then shared with their families and children at Christmas. The project has since expanded to six prisons, with videos being recorded three times a year.
“For many of the inmates, these videos are the first time they have taken responsibility and apologized to their kids, and the first step to establishing a bond that was lost when they went to jail,” said LeCroy. She received the Governor’s Volunteerism and Community Service Award from Virginia Governor Tim Kaine on April 15, 2009, and was a top-ten finalist for CNN’s Hero of the Year award in 2008. LeCroy works for the Virginia Department of Corrections and operates The Mes-sages Project on a volunteer basis.
Of course, not all video visitation services have such laudable (and non-profit) motives as programs like The Mes-sages Project. Companies such as JPay and einmate.com are simply trying to make money. And in October 2009, it was reported that the Sheriff’s Office in Charlotte County, Florida planned to sell advertising on video visitation screens at the county jail. The paid ads will have a captive audience.
PLN recognizes that video visits may be appropriate in some cases, such as when prisoners are transferred to other states where in-person visitation is impractical, or when family members are unable to visit due to cost or medical reasons. However, PLN believes it is inappropriate for video visitation to be used in lieu of in-person visits for the convenience of prison staff, to reduce institutional expenses, to generate profit, or to redress purported security concerns. Moreso when prison and government officials have made the decisions to build prisons in impoverished rural areas far from the urban areas that provide most of the prisoners and where most prisoners’ families reside.
In the latter regard, while prison officials routinely claim that most contraband is introduced through visitation, numerous cases of contraband smuggling by prison employees indicate that such incidents are more a staff problem than a problem involving visitors.
Sources: CBS News, CNN, http://hamptonroads.com, www.mysuncoast.com, Associated Press, Yakima Herald-Republic, Dallas Morning News, www2.tbo.com, www.themessageproject.org, www.wfla.com
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