By Christopher Zoukis
Video calling* is gaining a significant foothold in local jails. The technology is seen both as less costly than in-person visitation and a potential profit generator for jailers. But it can also have a detrimental impact on prisoners’ ability to communicate with their families; nevertheless, for-profit companies are rolling out video calling services as fast as they can. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.48; March 2014, p.50; Sept. 2012, p.42; Jan. 2010, p.22]
Often, when a jail contracts with a video calling provider, such as Securus Technologies, all in-person visitation is banned. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.44]. For example, in Maine’s Cheshire County and York County jails, as well as the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, in-person visits were banned after video calling services were implemented. Richard Van Winkler, superintendent of the Cheshire County jail, defended the move – which will earn his facility 20 cents of every $1 charged by Securus when prisoners’ families pay for video calls.
“When one violates the law and one has to serve time in a public institution, one of the liberties that one could lose is the opportunity to hug a loved one,” he said. “And you know what? That’s a difficult sanction. That’s hard time.”
According to a 2015 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, 13 percent of local jails – around 500 in 43 states – have implemented video calling, with 74 percent also banning in-person visitation. Costs to install the video system may be borne by the sheriff’s office, which then receives a portion of the fees paid by visitors who use the service.
Jail officials in Spartanburg County, South Carolina emphasized the benefits from eliminating the need to escort prisoners to in-person visits and monitor the visitation area. Before switching to video calling in March 2017, jail director Major Allen Freeman said such concerns made the prior visitation system “a logistical nightmare.”
But experts question whether prisoners should lose the ability to have in-person visits altogether. In a letter to the California Board of State and Community Corrections, a coalition comprised of the ACLU, Prison Law Office, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice said that in-person visits result in fewer disciplinary problems among prisoners and lower recidivism rates.
Some corrections officials agree that in-person visitation is a better option, at least with respect to prison discipline – in part because it’s a privilege that can be taken away as a sanction for misbehavior.
“When [prisoners] have that contact with the outside family, they actually behave better here at the facility,” said one Indiana prison official quoted in the Prison Policy Initiative report.
However, marketing pitches from companies like Securus to cash-strapped municipalities highlight cost savings and the potential to limit the introduction of contraband into jails. Those benefits may be illusory, though. In Travis County, Texas, a report published in October 2014 by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that the amount of contraband actually increased after the introduction of video-only visitation. So did disciplinary problems and prisoner violence.
Some states are taking steps to curb the introduction of video calling. In Texas, a law passed in May 2015 requires county jails to offer prisoners two 20-minute, in-person visits per month. State Senator John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who sponsored the bill, didn’t cite research linking in-person visitation with fewer problems and better outcomes for prisoners and their families. Instead he alluded to a moral imperative.
“I just think there’s something inherently wrong with not allowing a father to see his family or a mother to talk to her husband or son,” he said. “How do you keep an individual from seeing his family? As another human, how do you do that?”
Nationwide an estimated 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent, but 5 million children will experience parental incarceration at some point during their childhood. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.28]. African-American children are over seven times more likely than their white peers to have a parent in prison or jail, while Latino children are twice as likely.
“Visits are not a privilege or a reward for good behavior; they are a right,” asserted Tanya Krupat, program director at the Osborne Association, a New York-based non-profit that sponsors programs for children with incarcerated parents as part of its criminal justice reform efforts.
New York officials have insisted they view video calling as a way to supplement in-person visits, not replace them. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently restricted in-person visitation at state prisons to weekends, but a spokesman noted that the cost savings will allow for expanded video calling while also preserving the most popular times for families to visit, especially those that have to travel long distances.
Yet with research indicating that maintaining contact helps both children and their incarcerated parents – the child fares better during the parent’s absence and the parent enjoys a smoother re-entry to the community after release – other public officials want to encourage and expand in-person contact.
In New York, the Proximity Bill, introduced in March 2016, would create a pilot program requiring the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to take proximity to family members into account when assigning prisoners to state facilities. The bill is sponsored by state Senator Gustavo Rivera, a member of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, who was influenced by children he encountered through the Osborne Association.
“Children tell us all the time: Nothing replaces that quality in-person time,” said Krupat.
The Pennington County jail in Rapid City, South Dakota is one place where the introduction of video calling earlier this year was accompanied by an increase in the availability of in-person visitation.
“Anytime an inmate can be involved with his family, can spend time with them ... it improves their behavior in the facility,” explained Jail Captain Brooke Haga.
Back in Maine, the Somerset County jail was able to contract for video calling services from Securus without foregoing in-person visitation. But the overall trend points to increased video calling access and decreased in-person visits for prisoners.
California has gone further than Texas in limiting the use of video-only visitation in county jails. The Board of State and Community Corrections voted in February 2017 in favor of requiring future county jails to include space for in-person visits; the new regulation also prohibits sheriffs from adopting any policy that bans in-person visitation. Board chairwoman Linda Penner cited the growth of video calling as the basis for the rule.
“The use of video has become more widespread,” she said. “The regulation today really draws a line in the sand.”
But state Senator Nancy Skinner said the new regulations don’t go far enough.
“Why ... would we create a circumstance where [prisoners’] families cannot visit them?” she asked, adding that “video visitation is not the same as a family visit.”
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, agreed. While serving in the House last year she introduced H.R. 6441, the Video Visitation in Prisons Act, which would require the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that correctional facilities with video calling services do not ban in-person visits. The legislation would also limit the fees for video calls and impose other restrictions. An online petition in support of the bill is available at: www.goo.gl/88Xhnf.
Prison Legal News supports the use of video calling at prisons and jails only if it is provided at no cost and is used to supplement, not replace, in-person visitation.
* PLN refers to video visits as “video calling,” as they are not comparable to in-person visitation and are more like a video phone call.
Sources: Associated Press, www.sfgate.com, https://bangordailynews.com, www.nytimes.com, www.npr.org, www.prisonpolicy.org, www.villagevoice.com, www.goupstate.com, www.listen.sdpb.org
This article original appeared in Prison Legal News on March 31, 2017.