Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails
by Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner
Every Thursday, Lisa* logs on to her computer and spends $10 to chat for half an hour via video with her sister who is incarcerated in another state. Before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped the cost of interstate calls from prisons, these video chats were even cheaper than the telephone. Lisa’s experience is representative of the promise of video visitation.
Meanwhile, Mary* flies across the country to visit her brother who is being held in a Texas jail. She drives her rental car to the jail but rather than visit her brother in-person or through-the-glass, she is only allowed to speak with him for 20 minutes through a computer screen.
How do video visits work? While video visitation systems vary, a visitor typically makes an appointment and pays any visit charges in advance. The person who is incarcerated is told to be at a certain video terminal at a certain time. The visitor then either drives to the facility to sit at a terminal or uses their personal computer to access the video visitation system over the Internet. Once both people are ready at the right time, the “visit” can begin.
Reviewing the promises and drawbacks of video visitation
Increasing the options that incarcerated people and their families have to stay in touch benefits incarcerated individuals, their families and society at large. Family contact is one of the surest ways to reduce the likelihood that an individual will re-offend after release, the technical term for which is “recidivism.” A rigorous study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that even a single visit reduced recidivism by 13% for new crimes and 25% for technical violations. More contact between incarcerated people and their loved ones is clearly better for individuals, society and even detention facilities.
Without a doubt, video visitation has some benefits:
• Most prisons and some jails are located far away from incarcerated people’s home communities and loved ones.
• Prisons and jails sometimes have restrictive visitation hours and policies that can prevent working individuals, school-age children, the elderly and people with disabilities from visiting.
• It can be less disruptive for children to visit from a more familiar setting like home.
• It may be easier for facilities to eliminate the need to move incarcerated people from their cells to central visitation rooms.
• It is not possible to transmit contraband via computer screens.
But video visitation also has some serious drawbacks:
• Onsite video visitation is even less intimate and personal than through-the-glass visits, which families already find less preferable to contact visits.
• In jails, the implementation of video visitation often means the end of traditional, through-the-glass visitation in order to drive people to use paid, remote video visitation.
• Video visitation can be expensive, and the families of incarcerated people are some of the country’s poorest families.
• The people most likely to use prison and jail video visitation services are also the least likely to have access to a computer and the necessary bandwidth.
• The technology is poorly designed and implemented.
The video visitation industry and correctional facilities have largely focused on the promised benefits of video visits, but even as far back as 2008, a person incarcerated in Colorado expressed concerns: “If video visits are an addition [to in-person visits] they will be a help to all and a God-send to many. But, if video visits are a replacement for the current visitation, their implementation would be a painful unwelcome change that would be impersonal and dehumanizing.”
Video visitation reaches critical mass
Currently, more than 500 facilities in 43 states and the District of Columbia are experimenting with video visitation. While most sources trace the industry back to the 1990s, much of this growth has occurred in the last two to three years as prison and jail telephone companies have started to bundle video visitation into phone contracts.
Video visitation is ironically the least prevalent in state prisons, where it would be the most useful given the remote locations of such facilities, and the most common in county jails where the potential benefits are fewer. In contrast, jails typically implement video visitation in an unnecessarily punitive way. The differences between how prisons and jails approach video visitation are stark; Figure 1 summarizes our findings.
In the state prison context, the primary challenge to encouraging in-person visitation is distance, as many incarcerated people are imprisoned more than 100 miles away from their home communities. Most of the state prisons that use video visitation currently do so in small experimental programs or as part of a larger contract for electronic payment processing systems and email. Many of these experimental programs focus on special populations or special purposes. For example, New Mexico has a special program for 25 incarcerated mothers, and a number of other states use video systems for court and parole hearings. Other states like Virginia and Pennsylvania have regional video visitation centers that families can use, thereby reducing the distance that families must travel.1
Five states have large video visitation programs that are bundled with another service. Four states—Georgia, Indiana, Ohio and Washington—contract with the company JPay, and another industry player, Telmate, runs a video visitation system along with phone services in Oregon. Given that prisons hold people convicted of more serious crimes, one might expect that if any facility were going to ban contact visits and require visitation via onsite video terminals, it would be state prisons. However, prison officials understand that family contact is crucial for reducing recidivism, and burdening individuals with extensive travel only to visit an incarcerated loved one by video screen is particularly counterproductive. As Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer explained to the St. LouisPost-Dispatch: “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.”
In contrast, county jails confine people who are generally not far from home, and the majority are presumed innocent while they attempt to pay bail or await trial. The 40% of people in jail who have been convicted are generally serving a relatively short sentence for misdemeanor crimes. Despite the fact that jails should be particularly conducive to in-person visits, most jails have replaced contact visits with through-the-glass visits. And when jails implement video visitation, they typically replace through-the-glass visiting booths with a combination of onsite and remote paid video visitation.
Why families are unhappy with the video visitation industry
Most families—the end-users of video visitation—are deeply unhappy with the combination of video visitation’s poor quality and cost, and the fact that jails often force the service on them. Some of the specific problems are without a doubt fixable. Others are the inevitable result of a failed market structure, as the companies consider the facilities—not the families—as their customers. The primary complaint is apparent: video visits are not the same as in-person visits.
A. Video visits are not equivalent to in-person visits
It is more difficult for families to ensure or evaluate the wellbeing of their incarcerated loved ones via video than in-person or through-the-glass visits. Families struggle to clearly see the incarcerated person with video visits and instead face a pixelated or sometimes frozen image of the incarcerated person. The poor quality of the visits only increases family members’ anxiety. As Kymberlie Quong Charles of the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership told the Austin Chronicle, “Even through Plexiglass, it allows you to see the color of [a prisoner’s skin], or other physical things with their bodies. It’s an accountability thing, and lets people on the outside get some read on the physical condition of a loved one.”
Second, companies and facilities set up video visitation without any regard for privacy. Video visitation is popular among jails because by placing the video visitation terminals in pods of cells or day rooms, there is no longer a need to transport incarcerated people to a central visitation room. Yet the lack of privacy can completely change the dynamic of a visit. As a mother whose son is incarcerated in the St. Clair County Jail, Illinois explained, “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.”
Further, video visits can be disorienting because the companies set the systems up in a manner that is very different from in-person communication. Since the video visitation terminals were designed and set up with the camera several inches above the monitor, the outside visitor will never be looking into the incarcerated person’s eyes. Families have repeatedly complained that the lack of eye contact makes visits feel impersonal.
Video visitation can also add to the already significant trauma that children of incarcerated parents face, especially for young children who are unfamiliar with the video technology. Dee Ann Newell, a developmental psychologist who has been working with incarcerated children for 30 years, has witnessed traumatic reactions to video visitation from young children as well as from some of the older ones.
B. Video visitation is not ready for prime time
Despite the commonly-made comparison, video visitation technology is not as reliable as widely-used video services such as Skype or FaceTime, and if video visits are going to be the only option that some families have, they are nowhere near good enough. Families we interviewed who use onsite and offsite video visitation, including those who are experienced Skype and FaceTime users, consistently complained of freezes, audio lags and pixelated screens in video visitation.
Technical problems can be systemic. Clark County, Nevada is currently upgrading its Renovo video system to address problems with the current system, where “more than half of the average 15,000 visits a month were canceled because of tech issues.” Renovo was recently acquired by prison phone service provider Global Tel*Link.
C. Video visitation puts a price tag on a service that should be free
Much of the video visitation industry, particularly in county jails, is designed to drive people from what was traditionally a free service towards an inferior, paid replacement. Even where onsite video visitation is offered and free, it is often run in a limited way to further encourage offsite paid video visitation. Unfortunately, companies and correctional facilities negotiate the terms and prices without any input from the people who pay for video visits.
Charging for visitation also means charging families who are least able to afford this additional expense. In an extensive survey of previously incarcerated people, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 86% of respondents had an annual income that was less than $25,000. The Houston Chronicle editorial board condemned the practice of charging families for visits, declaring, “Making money off the desire of prisoners to be in touch with family members and loved ones is offensive to basic concepts of morality.”
What the industry is doing: Major themes
While there are tremendous differences in the rates, fees, commissions and practices in each video visitation contract, three significant patterns are common:
1. Most county jails ban in-person visits once they implement video visitation.
2. Video visitation contracts are almost always bundled with other services like phones, email and commissary, and facilities usually do not pay anything for video visitation.
3. Unlike with phone services, there is little relationship between rates, fees and commissions beyond which company is providing the service.
While virtually no state prisons2 ban in-person visitation, we found that 74% of jails banned in-person visits when they implemented video visitation. Though abolishing in-person visits is common in the jail context, Securus is the only company that explicitly requires this harmful practice in its contracts. The record is not always clear about whether the jails or the companies drive this change, but by banning in-person visits, it is clear that the jails are abandoning their commitment to correctional best practices.3
Video visitation is rarely a stand-alone service, and 84% of the video contracts we gathered were bundled with phones, commissary or email. Sometimes it is obvious that the bundling of contracts persuades counties to add video visitation. For example, in a contract approval form, Chippewa County, Wisconsin’s jail administrator described how attractive this makes video visitation: “The installation and start-up of the Video Visitation is $133,415.00 and Securus is paying all of it.” The county was further incentivized because by adding video, call management services “went from a discount of 30% to 76.1%.” In Telmate’s contract with Washington County, Idaho, the company says it needs to bundle its contracts or else it will be unable to provide video visitation free of charge to the facility. In other words, in this county, Telmate apparently subsidizes the cost of video visitation equipment by charging families high fees to deposit funds into Telmate commissary accounts.
Since the contracts are negotiated with the understanding that the facility will not be required to pay anything, the facilities sign them without carefully examining the real costs or who (prisoners’ families) will be paying for the shiny new services. For example, in Dallas County, Texas, after a huge public uproar, the County Commissioners Court unanimously rejected Securus’s request to ban in-person visitation. But two months later the county inexplicably approved a contract with Securus that included the installation of 50 onsite visitor-side terminals, which would only be useful if in-person visitation were eliminated. If the county had to pay the $212,500 for those onsite visitor-side terminals with its own—rather than families’—funds, the county commissioners would have surely been less reluctant to question such a purchase.
In the prison and jail telephone industry, there is a well-documented correlation between rates, fees and commissions that surprisingly does not exist in the video visitation market even though many of the same companies are involved. In the phone service market, the facilities demand a large share of the cost of each call, and these high commissions create an incentive for the facility to agree to high calling rates. In turn, the companies respond to the demand for high commissions by quietly tacking on new and higher fees to each family’s bill.
In the video visitation industry, the details of the contract are most dependent on the company. We report the typical rates and commissions for some of the industry leaders in Figure 2.
While Securus’s rates are significantly higher than those of other companies, Securus does not provide jails with higher commission percentages. In fact, the lowest commission among the jail contracts can be found in Maricopa County, Arizona, which receives 10% of Securus’s total gross revenues from video visitation. Overall, commissions are lower for video visitation than they are for phones. Oddly, it seems that sometimes negotiating a lower commission may bring down the rate charged to families, while other times it does not (Figure 3).
The companies also differ in how they charge families. Almost all of the companies charge per visit rather than per minute. For example, ICSolutions/VizVox, JPay, Renovo, Securus and Telmate all charge per video visit, while HomeWAV and TurnKey Corrections charge per minute.
As in the phone industry, the size of the hidden fees that add to the cost of each visit varies considerably. But unlike the phone industry, where “[a]ncillary fees are the chief source of consumer abuse and allow circumvention of rate caps,” the fees for video visitation vary from burdensome to nonexistent. In fact, some of the high-fee companies in the telephone industry are the very same ones that do not charge any credit card fees for video visitation (Figure 4, see next page).
Broken promises from the industry and its supporters
The video visitation industry sells correctional facilities a fantasy. Facilities are pitched a futuristic world out of Star Trek, where people can conveniently communicate over long distances as if they were in the same room while simultaneously helping facilities bring in revenue and eliminate much of the hassle involved in offering traditional visitation. In turn, the facilities sell these same benefits to the elected officials who must approve the contracts. But when hard lessons of experience bring down those dreams, the industry and the facilities are less forthcoming. This section reviews the record to date on the promises made by the industry and its supporters.
Our findings put the industry’s promises into question:
• Increased safety and security? The industry says, without evidence, that video visitation will make facilities safer, primarily by eliminating contraband. In the one study of this claim, Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that disciplinary cases for possession of contraband in Travis County, Texas increased 54% after the county completed its transition to video-only visitation. Correctional facilities tell elected officials that video visits can also eliminate “fights in the lobby,” but the public location of the terminals actually increases tensions in the cell pods. As a person incarcerated in Collier County, Florida described: “Everybody in the dorm or on the pod can still see who it is that’s visiting another. This in itself is invasive and potentially compromising and has led to fights among the inmates here.”
• Increased efficiency and cost savings for the facility? The industry tells the facilities that they can outsource handling families’ complaints, but when the video systems do not work, it is the facilities that are left filling in the gaps of a system they neither designed nor control.
• A lucrative source of revenue for the facility? The available data reveals that video visitation is not a big money maker for facilities and may not even be profitable for the industry. First, refunds are common. For the month of August 2014, the Charlotte County Jail in Florida and video visitation company Montgomery Technology, Inc. gave 35 refunds out of 89 total video visits. The facility and company each lost $8. Second, the contracts are often structured in a way that serves the needs of the industry before the needs of the facilities. In some cases, facilities must meet unreasonably high usage requirements set by companies as a prerequisite to receiving commissions. In other cases, video visitation companies require that their investments be recouped before they will pay commissions to the facilities. If this clause were in effect in Travis County, Texas—one of the few jurisdictions that have made commission data available—we calculate that it would take 17 years before Travis County would receive commissions.
• Families will readily embrace remote video visitation? Securus told Dallas County, Texas that “most [families] will readily embrace the opportunity to visit from home.” Our review of the record in other counties shows Securus scrambling to stimulate demand, frequently charging promotional rates well below the prices in the contracts and for far longer than the promotional period described in the contracts.
• Total visitation will go up? Although families dispute the assumption, sheriffs argue that video visitation is equivalent to in-person visitation, and they are quick to assert that since video visitation is more efficient, visitation will increase. For example, Travis County, Texas Jail Administrator Darren Long told the County Commissioners Court that video visitation has allowed the jails to provide an additional 11,000 visits. In reality, the total number of visits decreased by 28% after the imposition of video visitation because families are unhappy with both free, onsite video visits and the paid, offsite video visits.
• Most prisons and jails are moving to video visitation? Travis County Jail Administrator Darren Long also asserted that video visitation “is best practices going across the nation right now,” and implied that Travis County would be terribly behind if it did not adopt video visitation. In reality, only 12% of the nation’s local jails have adopted video visits. Administrator Long showed a slide with a list of 19 states that use video visitation, but, as discussed previously, most state prison systems are using video conferencing and video visitation on a very small scale as a supplement to existing in-person visits.4
• Remote video visitation is convenient? The promise of video visitation is that it will be easier for families, but the systems are very hard to use. In our experience with remote video visits and in our interviews with family members, the most common complaint was that these systems are inconvenient. We heard of and experienced repeated problems getting pictures of photo IDs to companies, scheduling visits, processing payments, and with some companies not supporting Apple computers. The video visitation industry—perhaps because of its exclusive contracts—apparently has little desire to win customer loyalty through making its service easy to use.
The financial incentives in the video visitation market put the priorities of the companies before the facilities or families, so it should come as no surprise the industry is not able to meet all of its attractive promises. Because video visitation is often framed as an “additional incentive” in phone or commissary contracts rather than a stand-alone product, it is unclear how much thought and planning the companies and facilities put into the actual performance of these systems. Worse still, these “add-ons” create spill-over effects, pushing their bloated costs onto other parts of the contract.
How are Securus video contracts different from other companies?
While most jails choose to ban in-person visitation after installing a video visitation system, only Securus contracts explicitly require this outcome. The Securus contracts also tend to include detailed micromanagement of policy issues that would normally be decided upon by elected and appointed correctional officials.
It is common to find the following elements in Securus contracts:
• “For non-professional visitors, Customer will eliminate all face to face visitation through glass or otherwise at the Facility and will utilize video visitation for all non-professional on-site visitors.”
• Additionally, Securus specifies that the county must pay for any free sessions the county wants to provide. With this clause and clauses that “reduce the on-site visitation hours over time,” Securus is restricting free, onsite visits and pushing families toward paid, remote visits.
Video visitation implementation may violate correctional & policy best practices
With few exceptions, jail video visitation is a step backward for correctional policy because it eliminates in-person visits that are unquestionably important to rehabilitation while simultaneously making money off of families desperate to stay in touch. In fact, banning in-person visits and replacing them with expensive virtual visits runs contrary to both the letter and the spirit of correctional best practices as defined by the American Correctional Association (ACA), the nation’s leading professional organization for corrections officials and the accreditation agency for U.S. correctional facilities.
In four conferences, the ACA has consistently declared that “visitation is important” and “reaffirmed its promotion of family-friendly communication policies between offenders and their families.” According to the ACA, family-friendly communication is “written correspondence, visitation, and reasonably-priced phone calls.” The ACA believes that, in addition to visitation, correctional facilities should provide incarcerated people other forms of communication. In its policy on access to telephones, the ACA states that, while “there is no constitutional right for adult/juvenile offenders to have access to telephones,” it is “consistent with the requirements of sound correctional management” that incarcerated people have “access to a range of reasonably priced telecommunications services.”
Yet instead of being used as a supplement, jails are frequently using video visitation to replace in-person visitation. Jail video visitation systems are further against correctional best policy because:
• The ACA is explicit that it “supports inmate visitation without added associated expenses or fees.” In the video visitation industry, visitation—which has long been provided for free—now has a price tag. Most jails provide a minimum number of onsite video visits for free, but sometimes facilities and companies make it nearly impossible for families to utilize these free visits. In Washington County, Idaho, families are given two free visits per week, but these visits can only be used from 6-8:00 a.m. Other counties are in direct violation of the ACA resolution. Lincoln County, Oregon and Adams County, Mississippi left families with only one option to visit: paid, offsite video visitation. Portsmouth County, Virginia, which has offsite and onsite video visits, goes as far as to charge for both.
• The ACA defines reasonably priced as “rates commensurate with those charged to the general public for like services.” And, while sheriffs are usually quick to compare video visitation to services like Skype and FaceTime, those services are free. Video visitation, on the other hand, can cost over $1.00 per minute. In Racine County, Wisconsin, a 20-minute video visit costs $29.95.
Similarly, the American Bar Association (ABA), the nation’s largest association of lawyers, foresaw that facilities would use new technologies to abolish in-person visitation, so it urged in its 2010 criminal justice standards: “Correctional officials should develop and promote other forms of communication between prisoners and their families, including video visitation, provided that such options are not a replacement for opportunities for in-person contact.”
Further, the editorial boards of papers as diverse as the Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, The New York Times and The Washington Post have severely criticized jail video visitation systems for weakening family ties and preying on those least able to afford another expense. A clear and strong national consensus has developed that jail video visitation systems are a major step in the wrong direction.
Video visitation can be a step forward
Much of this report has focused on how video visitation is a significant step backward for families and public safety. But video visits done differently could be a major step forward, and some companies are already taking some of these steps.
Two of the industry leaders, Securus and Telmate, claim that in order to be economically viable they must ban in-person visitation, but some of their competitors have found more reliable ways to stimulate demand. Securus and Telmate are utilizing a strategy that is proven by their competitors to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Securus almost always requires facilities to ban in-person visits and justified this to Dallas County, Texas, saying that the “capital required upfront is significant and without a migration from current processes to remote visitation, the cost cannot be recouped nor can the cost of telecom be supported.” Similarly, Telmate’s CEO says that banning in-person visits is the only way to increase video visitation volume in order to recoup the company’s investment.
However, TurnKey Corrections has found that when facilities offer families more and better options, they will use remote video visitation with greater frequency:
• When traditional, through-the-glass visits are retained, the jail averages 23 minutes of offsite video visits per month per incarcerated person.
• When through-the-glass visits are replaced with onsite video visits, the jail averages 19 minutes of offsite video visits per month per incarcerated person.
• When offsite video visits are the only visitation option, the jail averages only 13 minutes of offsite video visits per month per incarcerated person.
Turnkey’s experience is that the best way to sell offsite video visitation is to use other forms of visitation to build the demand. Putting up barriers to visitation does little besides discourage families from trying the company’s paid service.
Two companies, Turnkey and HomeWAV, structure their systems differently than the market leaders and operate them more like phone services. Both charge per minute rather than per visit, and neither company requires families to pre-schedule video visits. TurnKey allows the visitor to call into the facility without an appointment, while HomeWAV also does not require appointments.
HomeWAV told us that the average length of a video visit on their system is 5 minutes, significantly shorter than the standard visit blocks of 20 or 30 minutes. By charging per minute, families are incentivized to use video visitation for shorter time periods. For example, it is possible for a daughter to say goodnight to her incarcerated father without the visit being financially burdensome.
While some families find being able to schedule a video visit superior to waiting in a long line for an unscheduled visit, adding the option for unscheduled visits has advantages:
• It would be better than the telephone because it would allow family members to decide when to communicate, rather than being forced to sit and wait by the phone.
• It makes per-minute pricing both possible and efficient for both families and the companies.
Making video visitation more convenient is the key to increasing demand, and with higher demand the companies can lower prices, which will further stimulate demand.
In the facilities that contract with HomeWAV, which typically charges $0.50 per minute, the average video visitation usage is 16 minutes per incarcerated person per month. By contrast, we found that the average usage of Securus video visitation in Travis County, Texas from September 2013 to September 2014 was 2 minutes per incarcerated person per month. Further, our analysis of the volume and pricing data in Securus’s commission reports for Travis County found clear evidence that pricing matters, with higher costs correlating to fewer video visits.
The lesson is clear: the current approach to jail video visitation from Securus and other large companies is not effectively stimulating demand. While companies and facilities could make many small and large changes to address the lack of demand, the companies should start by giving up on the failed idea that banning in-person visitation is the only way to stimulate demand for remote video visits.
The rapid rise of the video visitation industry has received shockingly little attention, especially given the potential for this technology to serve as an end-run around existing FCC regulation. Right now, while the service is still new and evolving, we have a unique opportunity to shape the future of this industry lest its worst practices become entrenched as standard procedure. Although this report identifies some clear negative patterns—namely the frequency by which jails ban in-person visitation after adopting video visits—the diversity of practices in this market gives us hope that video visitation could be positive for both facilities and families.
The Federal Communications Commission should take the following action:
1. After regulating both in-state telephone call rates and the unreasonable fees charged by prison and jail telephone companies, the FCC should regulate the video visitation industry so that the industry does not shift voice calls to video visits. The proposed regulations should build on comprehensive phone regulations to include rate caps for video visitation.
2. Prohibit companies from banning in-person visits. The FCC should require companies, as part of their annual certification, to attest that they do not require any of their contracting facilities to ban in-person visitation. This requirement would not stop the sheriffs from taking such a regressive step on their own, but it would be a powerful deterrent.
3. Prohibit companies from signing contracts that bundle regulated and unregulated products together. Requiring that facilities bid and contract for these services separately would end the current cross-subsidization. Alternatively, the FCC could strengthen safeguards when allowing the bundling of communications services in correctional facilities, to ensure that the facilities are better able to separately review advanced communications services such as video visits as part of the Request for Proposals process. Either approach needs to enable all stakeholders to understand these services, their value and the financial terms of the contracts.
4. Consider developing minimum quality standards of resolution, refresh rate, lag and audio sync for paid video visitation. We note that JPay’s official bandwidth requirements are extremely low, and that in our test the facility struggled to provide even that bandwidth. The FCC could collect comments that review the academic literature on the appropriate thresholds for effective video communication, and devise appropriate standards.
5. Require family- and consumer-friendly features such as charging per minute rather than per visit. As the experiences of TurnKey and HomeWAV demonstrate, not every conversation needs to take the same amount of time. It is both fairer and more conducive to greater communication to charge for actual usage.
State regulators and legislatures should:
1. Immediately catch up and implement regulations like those of the Alabama Public Service Commission that actively regulate not only the prison and jail telephone industry but also these companies’ video visitation services.
2. Statutorily prohibit county jails from signing contracts that ban in-person visitation. These statutes should recognize that video visitation is a potentially useful supplement to existing visitation systems, but never a replacement. Further, while facilities routinely restrict visitation as part of their disciplinary procedures, such internal rules have no place in a contract with a telecommunications provider.
Correctional officials and procurement officials should:
1. Explicitly protect in-person visits and treat video visits only as a supplemental option. Social science research and correctional best practices encourage visitation as necessary for facilitating successful rehabilitation and preventing recidivism. Video visits could be beneficial as a supplement, but facilities should ensure that they do not approve video visitation contracts that will later lead to the banning of in-person visits.
2. Refuse commissions. Commissions drive up the cost to families which leads directly to less communication. Particularly when introducing new services like video visitation, facilities should resist the penny-wise and pound-foolish temptation provided by commissions.
3. Scrutinize contracts for expensive bells and whistles that facilities do not want or need. Insist on removing these items and instead having the rates lowered or, if they choose to receive a commission, having that commission increased.
4. When installing video visitation systems, put some thought in to where the terminals are located so as to maximize privacy. Existing visitation systems allow for monitored but otherwise private conversations, but putting video visitation terminals into busy housing units and day rooms can reduce the benefits of a family visit.
5. Refuse to sign contracts that give private companies control over correctional decisions, including visitation schedules, when it is acceptable to limit an incarcerated person’s visitation privileges, or the ability of people in correctional custody to move within the facility.
6. Refuse to sign contracts that bundle multiple services together. Contracts for one service that include a discount due to other contracts are fine, but bundling multiple services together makes it impossible to determine whether you are getting a good deal.
7. Consider the benefits of providing incarcerated people a minimum number of free visits per month. This minimal investment could reap large dividends for families and for reducing recidivism.
8. Invite bids where the facility purchases equipment from the companies instead of requiring that all bids be submitted on a no-cost basis. Having the company finance the equipment and installation increases the costs to families and cuts into any commission the facility chooses to receive.
9. Experiment with regional video visitation centers for state prison systems and remote jails. Regional centers serve as a great supplement to existing visitation systems. The centers operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections could serve as a possible model.
10. Insist on contracts where companies list and justify not just the cost of each video visit, but all fees to be charged to families. Lowering the fees keeps more money in families’ pockets, making it easier for them to use the video visitation system more frequently. This will have positive results both for reducing recidivism and also for any commission that the facility chooses to receive. For examples of questions that should be asked of prospective companies and evidence that such questions can bring about significant decreases in fees, see Securus’s response to such questions as part of the Request for Proposals process in Dallas, Texas.
11. If the facility allows the company to install any terminals for onsite visitation use by visitors, do not neglect basic issues like privacy partitions between the terminals and height-adjustable seats so that children and adults of various heights can see the screen and be visible on camera.
Video visitation companies should:
1. Improve their service so that people will choose to use it even when they are not being forced to do so. Areas of improvement include cost, video quality, usability of websites, streamlining the reservation process and improving customer support.
2. Experiment with ways to market video services that are more creative than banning in-person visitation. Encouraging facilities to maintain traditional visits—as TurnKey’s experience has shown—increases demand for offsite video visitation services.
3. Take advantage of existing technology to improve eye contact for video visits. Specifically, reduce the vertical distance between the camera and the screen and experiment with integrating the camera behind the screen of onsite terminals. The basic technology for this already exists. For example, the Prison Policy Initiative purchased a $50 device that mounts over a webcam and repositions the on-screen video, allowing us to look directly into the lens while also seeing the people we are communicating with.
4. Support more operating systems and mobile devices. JPay, HomeWAV and TurnKey support mobile devices, Renovo only added support for Apple computers in late 2014, and Securus and ICSolutions still do not support Apple computers.
5. Experiment with allowing incoming video visits without an appointment. Most prisons and jails do not require appointments for traditional in-person visits, and TurnKey and HomeWAV’s video visitation systems do not require appointments.
This article is a modified version of a January 2015 report, “Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails,” published by the Prison Policy Initiative and available at: www.prisonpolicy.org/visitation.
Bernadette Rabuy is a Policy & Communications Associate at the Prison Policy Initiative and a 2014 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Her previous experience includes work with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Voice of the Ex-Offender and Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Peter Wagner is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, and co-author of the Prison Policy Initiative’s oft-cited exposé, “Please Deposit All of Your Money: Kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry.”
* Family members’ names have been changed.
1 We use the term “regional video visitation center” to describe situations where the state has made an effort to bring visitation to the visitors. For example, we consider having special places throughout the state or using a mobile van (Pinellas County, Florida) to be regional visitation centers, but we would not consider Maricopa County, Arizona’s decision to make onsite video visitation terminals available at two of the county’s six jails to be regional visitation.
2 The one state prison exception that uses video visitation and bans in-person visits, the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility in Wisconsin, considers itself to be very similar to a jail, writing on its website that it “functions in a similar manner to that of a jail operation.”
3 Responsibility for banning in-person visitation cannot solely be attributed to the companies, because we note that even the jails that manage their own video visitation systems (Lee County, FL; Martin County, FL; Cobb County, GA; Wapello County, IA; Cook County, IL; Lenawee County, MI; Olmsted County, MN; Northwest Regional Corrections Center, MN; Sherburne County, MN) use video as a replacement rather than a supplement to existing visitation. In Global Tel*Link’s reply to the Alabama Public Service Commission’s further order adopting revised inmate phone rules, the company states, “The Commission seeks to review [video visitation] contracts because it is ‘concerned’ that the contracts may contain provisions limiting face-to-face visitation at correctional facilities.... These contracts are based upon the expressed needs of the correctional facilities. Correctional facilities have sole discretion to place limitations on face-to-face visitation at the facility....” Global Tel*Link seems to be implying that jails are the ones pushing to end in-person visitation. For more on Securus’s role in banning in-person visits, see the section, “How are Securus video contracts different from other companies?”
4 The 24 states that use video visitation are: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. Administrator Long misleadingly cites the number 19 from the Boudin, Stutz and Littman 2014 study, even though the study explains that some states use video visits on a temporary or limited basis. Out of the 19 mentioned in this study, we omitted Idaho, which we do not believe has video visitation, and added Alabama, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Carolina and South Dakota. One state prison, the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, did replace in-person visits with video visits, but it compares itself to a county jail.
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