Video Visitation a Growing Trend, but Concerns Remain
“I think it’s the way of the future,” said Kane County, Illinois police commander Corey Hunger. “In the next 20 years, I think everyone will have it.”
At some jails, visitors can use video screens to communicate with prisoners in another part of the facility. Other systems allow people to conduct visits via the Internet from a remote location, including their own homes. Prisoners typically use video monitors set up in cell blocks or other designated areas; the visits are monitored and recorded. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.44; Sept. 2012, p.42; Nov. 2011, p.37; Jan. 2010, p.22].
But in Kane County and other jails, the installation of video systems spelled the end of in-person visits. Hunger said not having to screen visitors and escort them through the jail frees up guards to perform other duties. Officials also claim that doing away with face-to-face visits reduces confrontations among prisoners and the risk that visitors will smuggle in contraband.
“[F]rom the standpoint of safety and security, it’s a huge improvement,” stated St. Clair County, Illinois Sheriff Rick Watson. “Every pod has a video monitor and the prisoners don’t have to be moved for visits, which saves on staff time. And if you cut down on movement of prisoners, you cut down on dangerous incidents.”
Eliminating face-to-face visits worries some prisoner advocacy groups.
“It’s a fundamental right to have meaningful visits with loved ones,” said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a Chicago-based organization. “If it’s to supplement in-person visits, that’s great. I think the danger in video visitation is using it to replace in-person visits,” he added.
“I hate not being able to see him face-to-face when I come to the jail,” stated Sherry McCullough, whose son is incarcerated at the St. Clair County Jail. “I want to get a good look at him, to tell him to stand up and turn around so I can see that he’s getting enough to eat and that he hasn’t been hurt. Instead, I have to see his cellmates marching around behind him in their underwear.”
However, other family members have complained about problems with in-person visits, including long wait times, searches and non-contact visits conducted through a window using telephones.
“A lot of times you’re trying to talk to your loved one and the phone on their end doesn’t work,” said Marilyn Murphy. “I don’t like it. I like it when you can physically see them,” she added. However, Murphy said visiting her son remotely through a home computer would be welcome. “To sit in the privacy of your home and visit a loved one?” she said. “Oh, yes.”
Critics complain that video visits are sometimes used to financially exploit prisoners and their families, and that service providers often return a percentage of the video visitation fees to correctional facilities.
Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center, the parent organization of Prison Legal News, described the practice as a kickback. “They’re using this as another revenue stream from people who have the least ability to do anything about it,” he said, comparing it to the “commission” model prevalent in the prison phone industry. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1]. He also noted that online video conferencing for non-prisoners, such as Skype, is usually free.
The largest provider of video visits, Securus, charges $1.00 per minute for the service. Securus CEO Richard Smith said the company anticipates adding another 100 video visitation sites by the end of 2014. According to the company’s website, Securus already provides phone service to about 2,200 correctional facilities housing more than 850,000 prisoners in 45 states, as well as 81 video visitation systems.
Global Tel*Link, the nation’s largest provider of phone services in prisons and jails, also offers video visitation – which is typically fee-based, with prisoners’ families paying the cost of the visits.
For example, the Del Valle jail in Travis County, Texas ended in-person visitation in 2013 except for attorney visits. Instead, Securus installed a video system and charges a $20 fee for a 20-minute visit. The county gets a $4.60 cut from each fee.
At the Lake County, Illinois jail, a 30-minute video visit costs $25.95 and the county receives 20% of the revenue generated from visitation fees. The Shawnee County Jail in Kansas eliminated in-person visits in January 2014 and now charges $20 for a 20-minute video visit. Other jails that have recently adopted video visitation, charging fees that typically range from $.40 to $1.00 per minute, include those in Alachua County, Florida; Hamilton County, Tennessee; Cumberland County, New Jersey; Chippewa County, Wisconsin; and Maricopa County, Arizona.
While the cost of video visitation may seem steep, when prisoners’ family members can visit over the Internet from their homes it eliminates the time and expense of traveling to the jail, plus allows them to accommodate work or school schedules.
The non-profit Prison Policy Initiative has urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate the fees for video visits in the same way it has regulated prison phone rates. The Massachusetts-based organization warned in a December 20, 2013 comment filed with the FCC that video visitation fees shared with corrections officials provide “perverse incentives” to eliminate in-person visits.
“The bottom line is that prison visits are a basic right that needs to be disconnected from a profit motive, both for private companies and the jails,” stated John Maki.
Despite such concerns, video visitation has gained support from both jailers and prisoners’ family members.
“I liked it because the privacy is better, said Karla Maldonado, who visits her brother at the Cook County jail. “Now you can hear what he’s saying.”
The Cook County jail complex eliminated in-person visits at a new building following the installation of a $1 million video visitation system, though face-to-face visits are still allowed in older units at the complex.
All 25 Illinois state prisons are scheduled to begin using video visitation this spring, officials said, with an estimated cost of $30 per visit. But Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer stressed the state will not use the system, provided by Global Tel*Link, as a revenue source.
“Any money that comes to us will be applied to offset our costs,” he noted. “There is no profit motive for us. But we have so many families wishing to do this we may need more staff hours to make the service available.”
Shaer said the state also has no plans to eliminate in-person visits. “I can’t imagine the scenario in which someone would travel to a prison and then wish to communicate through a video screen rather than see a prisoner face-to-face,” he said. “All research shows in-person visits absolutely benefit the mental health of both parties; video can’t match that.”
Certainly, free or reasonably-priced video visitation offered in conjunction with in-person visits can benefit prisoners’ families who must travel long distances or otherwise have difficulty participating in face-to-face visits. But eliminating in-person visits and charging for video visitation is just another way to monetize the corrections system and financially exploit prisoners and their family members.
“With proper regulation and oversight, prison and jail video communication has the potential to offer additional avenues for critical family communication. But if left unregulated, this market could follow the trajectory of the infamously broken prison telephone industry, dominated by the same corporations,” warned Prison Policy Initiative executive director Peter Wagner. “In that market, companies compete not based on price or service, but rather on who can charge families the most and kick back the largest share of the revenue to the facility that awarded the monopoly contract.”
Sources: Chicago Tribune, South Jersey Times, Chicago Sun-Times, https://securustech.net, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, www.wcjb.com, www.cjonline.com