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The Double-Edged Sword of Video Visitation: Claiming to Keep Families Together while Furthering the Aims of the Prison Industrial Complex

The Double-Edged Sword of Video Visitation: Claiming to Keep Families Together while Furthering the Aims of the Prison Industrial Complex

by Prof. Patrice A. Fulcher

At first glance, jail/prison video visitation schemes may seem beneficial to incarcerated persons and their families, as well as correctional departments. Jail/prison video visitation systems claim to afford greater opportunities to stay connected with loved ones, help to alleviate correctional safety concerns and generate institutional revenues, which offset incarceration costs. Thus the implementation of video visitation in U.S. prisons and jails appears to be a viable, mutually beneficial solution to correctional visitation concerns.

However, by scratching the surface, the double-edged sword of video visitation is revealed. The reality of video visitation presents several issues: 1) the elimination of face-to-face visits removes essential human contact that is critical to the survival of incarcerated individuals; 2) almost all of the in-home video visitation services charge excessive fees, which in turn exploit family and friends of incarcerated individuals; and 3) the economic success of video visitation is contingent upon the number of incarcerated individuals – a decrease in prison population has a direct effect on revenue and profits, and therefore further incentivizes incarceration.

Video visitation has the potential to keep families connected, yet the elimination of face-to-face visits threatens to erode much-needed associations an incarcerated person has with their loved ones and community. For those incarcerated, sustaining a connection to the world outside jail/prison walls is vital to successful service of jail/prison sentences and re-entry into society upon release. Many correctional institutions lack sufficient bed space or ample facilities, so incarcerated persons are routinely sent to other institutions to serve their sentences. These other institutions are typically in rural areas, far from the sentenced person’s community, so the extreme distance often prevents families and friends from making consistent visits.

In 2004, 62% of parents in state correctional facilities were incarcerated 100 miles or more away from their children and communities, consequently 58% of these incarcerated persons never received a visit. In the same year in federal facilities, 84% of parents were incarcerated 100 miles or more away from their children and communities, and 44% never received a visit.

Jeffery Leving, a proponent of jail/prison video visitation, argues that it will help to reduce the negative effects on children who grow up with incarcerated fathers. Leving further states that children should be in safe, comfortable environments while visiting their parents, as opposed to unfavorable prison environments that may be traumatic to children. It may be true that a majority of jail/prison settings are distasteful (although correctional institutions should make every effort to create welcoming visitation areas), and that video visitation might help to alleviate Leving’s concerns, but a greater problem arises when video visitation is used to completely eradicate face-to-face visits.

The Corinne Wolfe Children’s Law Center purports that the most effective way of preserving the well-being of children of incarcerated parents is to allow contact visitation between the parents and children. The Center claims that the ability of children and parents to physically touch each other is instrumental to successful bonding; this also helps normalize the situation and interactions between the parent and child, while benefiting the children emotionally and behaviorally. Thus jail/prison video visitation should be a supplement, not a replacement, for correctional face-to-face and contact visitation.

Moreover, there is widespread concern for the elimination of face-to-face and contact visits. Some U.S. correctional facilities have already completely eliminated all visits aside from video visitation. At the Washington, D.C. jail, the complete elimination of face-to-face and contact visits has caused public uproar and a push by the District of Columbia Bar Association, the Washington Post editorial board and members of the D.C. Council to restore in-person visitation through the implementation of the Video Visitation Modification Act. These groups contend that video visitation is impersonal and undermines rehabilitative efforts.

Video visitation is also problematic due to excessive fees associated with its usage. In most cases, the implementation of video visitation within correctional facilities does not create an additional expense for families and friends of incarcerated individuals. The issue lies with online video visitation costs, which run the risk of being exploitive. Correctional facilities have complete discretion in implementing rates and fees for online visits; as a result, jail/prison online video visitation fees are completely unregulated.

The unregulated nature of jail/prison video visitation has led to varying costs for the service, which are largely determined by the facilities. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections charges families $20 for a 55-minute visit, and the Virginia Department of Corrections charges $15 for a 30-minute visit and $30 for a 60-minute visit, whereas the Desoto County Jail in Hernando, Mississippi charges families $20 for a 20-minute visit. If these fees continue to be unregulated, they will lead to the continued economic exploitation of family and friends of incarcerated persons.

For example, for the past twenty years, jail/prison telephone call fees were also unregulated. In August 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that such fees were exorbitant and voted to cap the cost of interstate jail/prison calls. Prior to the FCC’s regulation, people were paying as much as $17.30 for a 15-minute phone call to speak with incarcerated family and friends. Martha Wright, for instance, who filed a petition that led to the FCC’s action, was forced to choose paying high telephone rates to speak with her incarcerated grandson on Sundays instead of paying for her prescribed medications.

Without regulation of prison/jail video visitation fees, companies such as Securus, GTL, Renovo and VuGate stand to enjoy substantial corporate financial gains, which have shown to be millions of dollars. Correctional institutions are also generating funds from online video visitation. In Ada County, Idaho, the Sheriff claimed that virtual visits would generate $2,000,000 over the course of two years. In Portsmouth, Virginia, the city contracted with a video visitation company called HomeWav. As a result of this contractual agreement, HomeWav grosses about $1,400 a month and the Portsmouth Sheriff’s Department receives about $1,000 a month.

Moreover, the excessive fees and high financial gains associated with the use of jail/prison video visitation lead to incentivizing incarceration. The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a multi-billion dollar profiteering industry rooted in the economic exploitation and dehumanization of extremely high numbers of human beings in U.S. jails and prisons. The PIC is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and generates revenues based on the mass incarceration of human beings.

The exclusive use of jail/prison video visitation systems has the potential to be another profiteering scheme of the PIC. Employing unregulated video visitation systems in jails and prisons will continue the frightful trend of incentivizing mass incarceration in the United States because this form of visitation offers vast economic opportunities for private companies and correctional institutions.

Ultimately, jail/prison video visitation is a double-edged sword as currently implemented because it cultivates the value of monetary gain over the lives of incarcerated persons and their loved ones. The current trend of jail/prison video visitation will continue to dissolve community bonds and lead to unrelenting economic subjugation of incarcerated persons and their families if in-person visits are replaced with dehumanizing video visitation screens.

On the other hand, the use of jail/prison video visitation might advance altruistic as well as institutional goals if highly regulated and used in conjunction with, not in lieu of, face-to-face and contact visits; such visitation systems must not be emotionally and financially repressive. Accordingly, jail/prison video visitation should only be implemented as a means to strengthen family and community ties and promote successful re-entry, and if there are any associated fees they must be affordable and transparent.


Professor Patrice A. Fulcher is a tenured Associate Professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. Her publications focus on profiteering schemes in the Prison Industrial Complex. She advocates for the equality of the disenfranchised and quality legal representation for the poor, and wrote this summary of her research on video visitation exclusively for PLN.


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