« SCOTUS asks for views from US Solicitor General on original lawsuit between states over marijuana reform | Main | Could new DEA chief significantly change realities of federal war on drugs? »

May 4, 2015

"Are video visits a smart innovation for jails — or yet another way to exploit families?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable lengthy new Quartz piece. Here are excerpts:

To visit her son in jail in the suburbs of Austin, Texas, Barbara Brutschy would get on a plane and fly 1,700 miles from her home in Oregon.  She would arrive at the jail, go through security checks, including metal detectors, all airport-style.  An hour later, she would sit down in a booth, wait, and after a couple of minutes her son, Richard Fisk, would appear — on a video screen.

Video visitation, as it’s called, is the latest innovation in America’s jails.  Hundreds of jails have introduced on- and off-site video visitation since it became widely available two-to-three years ago.  (In 95 known cases, jails are using it to replace in-person visits altogether.)  Jail authorities say it’s more secure, less costly to supervise, and better for inmates too, as it allows jails to extend visiting hours.  Prisoner advocates, once optimistic about its potential, now see something more sinister: A financially-squeezed jail system and a handful of private communications companies creating an environment where inmates are exploited, often at considerable financial and emotional cost....

Twelve million people pass through the US jail system each year, most of them in pre-trial detention or serving short terms.  Jails are run by counties, while prisons, where inmates serve longer sentences, are managed by state and federal authorities.  Video visitation is much more commonly used in jails reported advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative.

“The whole purpose of video visitation was to cut down on man hours and the movement inside the jail of our inmates,” said Charlie Littleton, chief deputy sheriff at Bastrop County, Texas, which introduced video visitation and banned face-to-face in November 2014.

Jail authorities commonly say they cut labor costs when guards do not have to escort prisoners from their cells to the visiting room.  It’s unclear exactly how much the jails are saving.  When asked about whether they had calculated their savings over the course of the ban, Littleton said they hadn’t “run the figures”.

Another benefit that’s touted is increased safety through a reduction of contraband and violent incidents.  But because visits in county jails often occur through glass — the kind you see in movies, where the inmate sits on one side of the partition and the visitor on the other, with phone receivers on both ends — how video visits promote safety is not apparent.  In fact, records from Travis County showed an overall increase in infractions and contraband after banning face-to-face visitation.

Authorities say that installing video systems makes it easier for families to visit.  That’s how the systems are marketed as well.  “By leveraging the technology, facilities are able to provide far more hours of operation for visits for friends and family,” Tim Eickhoff, a vice president at GTL told Quartz.

But those extended hours can come with a catch, prisoners and their families have found. In some cases, the frequency of free on-site visits has been curtailed, forcing families to use paid off-site services to communicate....

The financial cost to prisoners and their families of video calls can be considerable. A Securus video call can cost as much as $1.50 per minute–all of which falls on the outside caller.  That means a 20-minute video call can cost as much as $30 — for a service not very different from Skype or Google Hangouts, that most of us in the outside world use for free. Some companies also add a flat service charge, further hiking up the fees.  In Buchanan County, Missouri, the fee to simply deposit money into your TurnKey Corrections phone account is $8.95....

Starting in 2013, the Federal Communications Commission initiated efforts to limit how much prisons could charge inmates for phone calls, amid public outrage at reports of exorbitant costs. One 15-minute phone call, operated by a private communications company, can cost as much as $12.95 (paywall).  But while the commission is beginning to impose caps on costs of phone calls, it did not extend the limits to video visits. (It has “sought comment on the matter” a spokesperson for the FCC tells Quartz.)

“Video visitation is absolutely unregulated. Phones are beginning to be regulated, and I think that most people in the field see video visitation as a way to skirt around that regulation,” says Josh Gravens of advocacy group Texas CURE. The cost is too much, he says, for the quality of the call. “In this day and time, we have such a technological advantage. It’s not even justifiable.”

Private communications companies typically add sweeteners to encourage jails to sign up for their services. These can include the free installation of the systems, as well as significant commissions to the jails for each video call ranging from less than 1% to half of what an inmate is charged, and even 63% in one case, found the PPI report. For jails, the sweeteners, along with the savings they anticipate, can offer a way to bolster their cash-strapped budgets. As Ann Jacobs, director of the Prison Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York noted, although jail budgets have grown along with the prison population, that growth has only been enough to accommodate basic needs of the facilities. “Correctional authorities are encouraged to get creative where to find profit.”...

Video visits exact an emotional as well as financial toll on inmates and their families. Jail sentences are relatively short, but some inmates linger in pre-trial detention for as long as six years. Research maintains that the best kind of meeting for inmates is a contact visit, the kind that is offered in state prisons. Studies have repeatedly proven that touch helps with creating social bonds, reducing stress, and increasing trust.

Placing a camera and screens between inmate and visitor eliminates some of the advantages of a visit. “They’re probably less than 500 feet away from you and you feel like they’re still in another state,” said Fisk. Just like with a Skype or FaceTime connection, you can’t maintain eye contact on a video call, because you spend most of your time looking at the screen, not at the camera. “You can never look someone in the eye. It’s impossible.”

Some prior related posts:

May 4, 2015 at 01:39 PM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e201bb0828ad7f970d

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Are video visits a smart innovation for jails — or yet another way to exploit families?":

Comments

Both. Expoitive only if in-person visits are disallowed.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | May 4, 2015 9:14:06 PM

If I sell something worth 10 cents for $100, isn't that actual fraud, with intent to deceive? Where is the tort bar when it can do some good? Skype is free, as are many such programs.

Visits should be free on prison laptops, at a distance. If the person is on the prison grounds, then a direct visit should be mandatory. It seems only legislation can remedy these frauds.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 5, 2015 12:39:37 AM

Arpaio used glass barriers as punishment in his jails, even though many of his inmates have not been convicted of a crime, sure many end up convicted but those that stay in his jail are there for low-level offenses, of course some low-level offenses may be serious but other's aren't and most folks are probably not very violent folks in his jail that are convicted anyway because that's not how they are or they don't want additional jail time.

Most folks don't realize that staff in county jails sometimes get away with intimidating prisoners because they know they can get away with it because those low-level mostly petty offenders won't fight back because that's their nature or because they want to avoid more serious charges and are generally some what law-abiding or not really a threat to society. Of course government does determine what's a misdeamnor and a felony, so some felony charges could be non-serious in nature while some misdemeanors aren't, but I would presume while not ignoring that fact, that many low-level crimes are not as serious.

Of course prison visits have strict regulations and time slots, I doubt all of it is because of security concerns, for instance dress regulations while important in certain instances go too far, is requiring a bra for women really necessary, prisons will ban loose or baggy clothing but then ban tight fitting clothing even if its not intentionally to make a statement. Exposing shoulders in and in itself is not a legitimate penalogical function. Anyways a bit off topic but not too off-topic.

The problem is of course we incarcerate folks unnecessarily.

Posted by: Alex | May 5, 2015 10:57:44 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB