The Weber County Jail in Ogden, Utah has joined a growing trend – moving to video visits for prisoners – and has also started charging prisoners' families for "extra" visitation time.
In 2009 the jail replaced in-person, no-contact visits with video visits, using visitation and scheduling programs provided by Renovo Software. According to Renovo's website, the company "has provided over 100 correctional facilities with an innovative and comprehensive set of tools to manage, schedule, and automate their inmate visitation environments."
The arrangement at the Weber County Jail requires visitors to access the Internet to register and schedule a visit. The jail allows one or two free 25-minute video visits per week depending on a prisoner's classification level, not including attorney visits, which are still in-person visits. Prisoners participate in video visitation via terminals located throughout the jail.
In 2011, Renovo Software developed a pay-to-visit option, and approached jail officials with the idea of allowing additional visits for a fee.
"As a result of using our visitation management system, Weber's jail has become so efficient that they are able to generate revenue by offering extra personal visits for a fee – this is a common theme among our customers," said Brian Peters, Renovo's product and marketing director. "With a jail population of about 700, Weber averages 500 free visits per week. This means that some inmates are reaching their quotas while others are not."
In November 2011 the jail began allowing additional video visits for $10 each. "The process to set up paid visits is the same as a free one – visitors must register and schedule visits as before, the only difference is that they use their credit, debit or Visa/AMEX gift card to pay for the extra visit," Peters stated.
Renovo provided the pay-to-visit software and training to jail employees at no extra cost, and the county receives a "commission" of approximately two-thirds of the revenue generated by the visitation fees – along the same business model as prison phone companies.
"We absolutely have far less complaints from inmates on visitation issues ... and overall, I believe inmate discipline problems in general are down, although I don't have exact statistics on that," said Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson. "I feel their overall demeanor is better, and no question the video system contributes to that."
Early data indicated an average of seven paid visits per day with growing usage as more people became aware of the option. Just seven paid visits per day would generate revenue of more than $25,000 a year. By March 2012 the paid video system had reached 330 visits per month, generating $4,000 in monthly commissions.
Some county residents expressed concern at the concept of charging visitors to see prisoners, even for additional visitation time.
"We understand the perception that we are charging the families for access to their loved ones," said Peters. "But we want to be clear that the inmates are allowed to have the same number of free visits as before and this gives families extra opportunities to visit their loved ones."
But doesn't this also give jails an incentive to reduce free visitation, or at least a disincentive to expand the number or length of free visits?
"Each correctional facility has the ability to set different rates and visitation lengths that are appropriate to the laws of the local community – all of which will result in different revenue potential," Peters stated. In other words, more free visits equates to less revenue.
There are also concerns about requiring visitors to have Internet access and to use credit, debit or gift cards to pay for extra visits with their incarcerated loved ones. Some prisoners' families do not have Internet access or credit or debit cards, and have to pay additional fees to obtain gift cards to fund the visits.
If the use of video visitation and scheduling software has made visitation so much more efficient, then jail officials should be offering extra free visits, not looking for ways to charge visitors. The pay-for-visitation model – even in addition to free visits – is simply another way to monetize our criminal justice system at the expense of prisoners and their family members, who are least able to afford such costs.
In March 2012, the Weber County Jail added a few feature provided by Renovo: an email system that allows people to send electronic messages to prisoners. For a fee, of course. The emails cost about $.60 each and can be no longer than one page; prisoners can not respond via email. As with video visitation, the county gets a commission from the revenue generated by the email system.
The Weber County Jail is just one of many nationwide that use video visitation systems in lieu of or in addition to in-person visits, including jails in Idaho, Minnesota and Florida. [See: PLN, Aug. 2012, p.50; Nov. 2011, p.37]. Some jails charge fees ranging from $.35 to $.55 per minute for video visits. Several state prison systems use video visitation too, such as in Virginia and Indiana. [See: PLN, May 2013, p.1; Sept. 2012, p.42; Jan. 2010, p.22]. Companies that specialize in correctional video visits include Renovo, JPay and iwebvisit.com.
The District of Columbia jail has jumped on the video visitation bandwagon, transitioning to video visits on July 25, 2012. Visitors now have to use video monitors at a building at the former D.C. General Hospital Complex located near the jail. While male prisoners can only receive video visits, women prisoners and juveniles still have contact visitation.
The D.C. jail's video system was provided by prison phone company Global Tel*Link, with software by Renovo. Although the visits are free, there was a backlash by prisoners' advocates and family members.
"This practice is not exactly being well received," noted Philip Fornaci, director of the D.C. Prisoners' Project. "If it were a supplement to personal visits, that would be one thing," he said. "But it's not, and already people who are visitors to the jail are humiliated and treated poorly. To me, this is just another sign of the disrespect."
Some family members, however, said video visitation is more convenient and avoids the long waits in line that were typical for in-person visits. Jail officials argued that video visitation is safer, less expensive, provides more visitation time and avoids problems associated with in-person visits, such as searching visitors.
"For visitors, it's more comfortable here than in the jail," said Thomas P. Hoey, acting deputy director of the D.C. Department of Corrections. "Everyone on both sides is more quiet." He added, "We don't have to pat down a 4-year-old."
Sources: www.prweb.com, www.renovosoftware.com, www.washingtonpost.com, New York Times, www.naco.org
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login