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Prisoners and Families Connect with Video Visitation, for a Price

Since 2006, family members and friends of Virginia prisoners have been able to use modern videoconferencing equipment to enjoy visits with loved ones held in state prisons hundreds of miles away.

The Video Visitation Program, operated by two Richmond-based nonprofit groups, Assisting Families of Inmates and the New Jubilee Educational and Family Life Center, in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Corrections, is designed to make it easier for prisoners to keep in touch with their families. Staying connected, prison officials and prisoner advocates agree, improves the likelihood that prisoners will achieve long-term success once they are released.

For prison officials, there is the added bonus that participation in the video visitation program gives prisoners an incentive to maintain good behavior. A prisoner who has not remained disciplinary-free for six months is generally not allowed to take part.

For families, the video visiting program is user friendly. A half-hour video chat costs $15 while an hour-long visit costs $30; by comparison, an in-person visit – taking into account the cost of gas, food and overnight lodging – can run $500 or more, according to Fran Bolin, executive director of Assisting Families of Inmates.

The Video Visitation Program is offered at ten Virginia state facilities, and four churches serve as outside video visit sites in Richmond, Norfolk, Alexandria and Roanoke. A number of prisons and jails in other states provide video visitation, too. [See: PLN, Nov. 2011, p.37; Jan. 2010, p.22].

In fall 2011, a video visitation program at three Ohio prisons, organized by the Cleveland Eastside Ex-Offender Coalition, shut down after state grant funding ended. The organization was unable to find replacement funding for the video visits, which were made available at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg and Allen Correctional Institution in Lima. The video visitation was provided at no cost to prisoners and their family members.

“We still kept the program going for our clients as we looked for other sources of revenue, but we became over-whelmed,” said Caroljean Gates, the organization’s director. “Our phones have constantly been ringing every week be-cause people want to talk with their loved ones [in prison].”

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction offers pay video visits at four other facilities though Global Tel*Link, a company that primarily provides prison phone services. Other for-profit companies, such as JPay, also provide video visitation for a fee at various prisons and jails nationwide.

On July 25, 2012, the District of Columbia’s jail system switched to video visits instead of in-person visits. Video stations were installed in jail housing units and at an outside Video Visitation Center for freeworld visitors. According to jail officials, video visitation will double the number of visits available each day and visitors will no longer have to wait in long lines or undergo searches.

However, according to Ivy Finkenstatdt, a staff attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee’s DC Prisoners’ Project, “There’s something more tangible about sitting in a room, visiting a loved one” in person.

Sources: Washington Post, New York Times,

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