The website of one telecommunications company advertises: “Are you tired of taking the time to drive to the jail and wait in long lines for your visit? Would you rather conveniently schedule your next visit according to your own availability instead of being subjected to limited visitation times?…Anywhere Visit enables you to begin visiting remotely with your incarcerated loved one using a computer with a web camera connected to the internet.” Another promises: “With video visits, our state-of-the-art system allows inmates, friends, family and loved ones to enjoy more personal, longer and more frequent visits…we know you’ll enjoy this more intimate and personal way to connect.” And yet another claims: “There’s nothing quite like seeing your loved one in person. Visiting them at their correctional facility, however, can often be difficult; the prison or jail may be far away, and the security procedures can be invasive…JPay’s Video Visitation lets you talk face-to face with your incarcerated friend or relative from the comfort of your own home. When you can’t be there, this is the next best thing.”
These advertisements make video communication seem like the perfect solution to the logistical inconveniences of in-person conversation. Unfortunately, many who use services such as Skype or FaceTime know the frustrating realities of video communication: lagging audio, low-resolution images, frozen screens, error messages insisting on updated software. Nevertheless, telecommunications companies have set their sights on this new frontier: video visitation. As of 2014, jails and prisons in 43 states have begun incorporating video visitation into their prison communication systems. Two types of video visitation are offered: in-facility and at-home. In-facility video visitation, usually offered without cost to the users, allows prisoners to communicate with visitors through a video interface at the prison. At-home video visitation allows remote communication with the inmate. Depending on the service company and the prison, this could cost the user more than $1 per minute in addition to service fees.
Among the benefits cited are lower security costs to the correctional facility and the convenience of video visitation. Contraband is one significant security concern associated with in-person visits, which becomes less of a concern with video visitation. Beyond contraband, some posit that in-person visits lead to violent encounters because “bad things happen in face-to-face visits.” While this claim is unsupported by data, the idea is that the security personnel previously devoted to monitoring in-person visits can be reallocated to addressing other security concerns. According to Richard Smith, CEO of Securus Technologies (one of the three largest companies providing video visitation services), jails and prisons could save $1 billion a year in staffing and facility costs. Additionally, as the websites advertise, convenience is considered a key selling-point for video visitation. Smith estimates that visitors who use video visitation could save $2 billion a year on gas and lodging that would have been spent traveling to in-person visits. For some, video visitation may indeed offer an appealing alternative to inconvenient trips to correctional facilities.
While video visitation promises convenience, the equipment and technology involved may in fact create barriers to access. Those who do not have the requisite equipment or the newest software may see their visitation opportunities significantly curtailed. The ads that companies like Securus or Telmate display on their websites encourage us to forget about the visitor who does not have an updated iPad or high-speed internet. The grandparent, perhaps, who is unfamiliar with video chatting or who doesn’t have the budget for $1-per-glitchy-minute video calls is left out of the picture. The frequency, cost, and quality of visits could be dictated by a visitor’s financial means and access to technology, placing the heaviest burden on those who have the least.
Video visitation also threatens to replace in-person visitation. According to a report on video visitation published by the Prison Policy Initiative in 2015, 74% of jails that implemented video visitations eliminated in-person visitation. Securus used to require this replacement as part of its contractual agreement with prisons, although it no longer includes it as a contract term. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of in-person visitation, and it is critically important to maintain video visitation as a supplement, not a replacement, for in-person interactions. Those who remain in contact with family or friends while incarcerated tend to have lower rates of violence while in prison as well as lower rates of recidivism than those who lose contact. Video visitation as a replacement for in-person visitation would both decrease the quality of interaction and also diminish the frequency of visits for those who lack convenient access to the technology. Although a prisoner’s legal right to visitation has not been established, a prisoner’s First Amendment rights would be implicated by this limitation on communication.
Video visitations suggest monetary exploitation of inmates in a manner similar to inmate calling rates, previously explored on in this blog. Prisons and service companies continue to extract profits from a population that already suffers from lack of resources. Many prisons or counties receive commissions or profit-shares from telecommunications companies when they install video visitations systems.
In July of 2017, Senator Tammy Duckworth reintroduced the “Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act of 2017” to establish regulation and oversight of video visitation and inmate calling services. The bill stipulates that video visitation services should not replace in-person visitation, rates and fees must be capped, the service provider must offer a minimum number of free visits based on good behavior, and the service must meet the standards of the best commercially available human communication by video. These are important basic regulations, and if adopted, the details of each will be critical to meaningful oversight.
Even as Congress considers this bill, how will it anticipate further advances in technology? Video visitation gestures to the Pandora’s box of civil rights issues that follow technological development. Email communication is already being introduced, with fees charged per email. If we rehash the same debate every time a new technology is introduced, service companies will always be one step ahead, plowing on with unregulated technology. While still unregulated in this area, telecommunications companies can offer tempting money-saving opportunities for the prison industry while financially exploiting prisoners and impeding their rights. Before the FCC made an effort to regulate telephone calling rates in prisons, companies seized the opportunity to charge prisoners exorbitant prices of up to $14 per minute. Implementation of regulation has been delayed as telecommunications companies embroil the FCC in lawsuits, arguing that the FCC had exceeded its authority. The corporate strategy to introduce new services and then entangle regulators in lengthy lawsuits has proven successful in the past. Prisoners have neither time nor money on their side.
While high calling rates tested the bounds of monetary exploitation of prisoners, video visitation is a litmus test of whether we will articulate standards for the quality of communication between inmates and their visitors. The reality of long-term benefits for the health of prisoners and their re-entry prospects, as well as a regard for the rights of prisoners as people, should drive the need to articulate this standard. The long-term cost-savings of decreased prison violence and decreased recidivism should encourage law-makers to insist upon high-quality and affordable communication options. A recognition that prisoners need their communities and need those moments of connection just as much as anyone else should speak to actors across the spectrum of interests. Unless access to video visitation is leveled and the quality of video meets sufficiently high standards, this technology will dictate which prisoners can benefit from meaningful communication with their community.