by Derek Gilna
Although video calls – the term PLN uses to describe video visits, which are far removed from actual visitation – are available at many county jails and some prisons, usually for a fee, more and more facilities are considering using them to replace in-person visits. But prisoners’ family members, advocacy groups and even some public officials are pushing back against the practice. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.46; April 2017, p.22; March 2015, p.1].
An August 2017 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, “Closing the Distance,” noted that “staying connected to loved ones outside of prison is important to the well-being and success of incarcerated people in leading safe and crime-free lives after release.”
The report also found the use of video calling correlated to an increased number of in-person visits for those prisoners whose families used it – meaning the technology may actually help “strengthen people’s relationships to those on the outside.”
Research has long shown that increased contact between prisoners and their family members, particularly through visitation, results in better post-release outcomes and thus lower recidivism rates. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.24].
But because most video calling systems are fee-based, the cost can have a detrimental impact on prisoners’ families. On the low end, the Jones County Detention Center outside Macon, Georgia charges just $3.50 for a video call. Sheriff’s Office Capt. Guy Mosteller said the system was installed for security reasons.
“We had to have officers manually go to the blocks and escort the inmates through the secure corridors up in the visitation chambers,” he said.
Besides eliminating crowds that jam the jail on the two days each week that in-person visits were allowed, the system has also produced a win-win for prisoners and their family members, Mosteller added.
“It gives the inmates an opportunity to actually have more visits than what they were actually having before,” he said. “So it’s a convenience for the family, and it helps build the morale of the inmates because they’re actually able to interact with their families more now.”
The video calling system studied by Vera cost $12.95 for a 30-minute session – probably not a large sum compared to the cost imposed on visitors who have to travel from their home to a correctional facility. It can still be a significant amount, however, considering that prisoners’ families are often impoverished.
The number of prisoners using the video calling service during the period studied by Vera was small, the report noted, and those who used it said the cost limited their use. They also stated that video calls alone couldn’t “be relied on to increase contact with their loved ones.”
Moreover, the report continued, some of the prisoners most in need of supportive contact, “such as older people and those with mental illness, received both the fewest in-person visits and the fewest video visits.”
Many prisoners are incarcerated far from their families, and they indicated that video calling is better than no visitation at all. And while some prisoners thought video calls made it easier to have more frequent contact with family members, especially if small children were involved, others reported they were stressful.
While acknowledging the useful potential of video technology, Vera – like other advocacy organizations – has expressed concern that in-person visitation might get scrapped in favor of video calls, in which case “[corrections] agencies are likely doing more harm than good.”
Vera’s report also noted that in some jurisdictions where in-person visitation has been eliminated, visitors are still required to travel to a jail to conduct a video call, “thus negating one of the most positive aspects of video calls – the ability to conduct them from anywhere with an Internet connection.”
The Durham County Detention Facility near Raleigh, North Carolina is considering adding an on-site video calling system through a kiosk at the jail, though Sheriff Michael D. Andrews insisted “there are no plans to remove in-person visitation.”
“We’re still offering in-person visits,” he said, adding that video calls would provide detainees and their families “modern and courteous customer service” along with “another way to connect.”
Durham County’s approach is not typical, though. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 74 percent of jails that introduce video calling end up eliminating in-person visits completely.
At the Westmoreland County Prison near Pittsburgh, prisoners were limited to one in-person visit a week after a new video calling system was installed in 2015. As a result, the $92,000 system – originally purchased to reduce security risks associated with in-person visits – is close to paying for itself, with a record-high 231 users in February 2018 paying $15 each for a 25-minute video session.
“It’s really taking off,” said Warden John Walton, who oversees the 640-bed facility.
Denver, Colorado eliminated in-person visits at all of its detention facilities in 2005. Now that the city is considering the installation of a new video calling system, Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell has made his objections known, based on the importance of in-person visits for children of incarcerated parents.
“Before the city makes a long-term – and possibly substantial – financial investment in a jail video visitation system,” he said, “... we need to talk about whether depriving kids of in-person visits with their parents is consistent with our values as a city.”
While under pressure to lower its prison population and better prepare prisoners for successful reentry into their communities, California has recognized the threat of eliminating in-person visits and the effect that could have on recidivism rates. Governor Jerry Brown has opposed efforts to ban in-person visitation, and the new state budget reflects his position that all prisons should have space for in-person visits.
That contrasts with Florida, where the Department of Corrections (FDOC) announced in early 2018 that it planned to halve the time for in-person visitation at state prisons in order to keep its payroll costs within budgetary constraints.
“We value in-person visitation, we absolutely do,” insisted FDOC spokeswoman Michelle Glady. “But given our current [financial] situation, this is our best option for safety reasons.”
At the same time, the FDOC is contracting with JPay to implement a fee-based video calling system in state prisons. Glady said that was unrelated to the rollback of in-person visits, and that the FDOC has been working on the new system for two years. But prisoners and their family members and advocates were skeptical.
“The possibility of revenue is probably the leading factor,” observed Lucius Couloute, an analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative.
“They’re reducing our days so they can make money on video visitation,” said Jewie Tryon, whose husband is serving 25 years to life. “When you take away the only honest-to-God reason for rehabilitation these guys have, you’re going to have trouble.”
Tryon has started a petition on Change.org to stop the visitation policy changes, and on April 13, 2018 the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, sent a letter to Florida prison officials objecting to the reduction in in-person visits.
“Contrary to the FDOC’s claims of security concerns, HRDC feels that reducing in-person visits serves the dual purpose of 1) increasing profits to, and kickbacks from, private contractors [like JPay] and 2) further isolating prisoners from their families and communities, at a significant cost and risk to public safety and contrary to the public interest,” the letter stated. “As government officials, FDOC employees should be seeking to enhance the safety of our communities and not putting their own greed and self-interest above that of the public they purport to serve.”
We will report the FDOC’s visitation policy change in greater detail in a future issue of PLN.
Sources: Los Angeles Times; Denver Post; Greenburg Tribune Review; www.indyweek.com; www.bloomberg.com; www.nbc41.com; “Closing the Distance,” Vera Institute of Justice (Aug. 2017)
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