Jails are replacing visits with video chat$

September 20, 2018

Prison officials and tech firms are teaming up to turn a profit by taking advantage of disproportionately poor families struggling to maintain contact with their loved ones. Maddie Fenn of the Denton International Socialist Organization and Brock Beauclair of the North Texas Democratic Socialists of America explain.

PRISONERS IN Denton County, Texas, are not permitted to receive in-person visits from their loved ones because the prisons where they are housed can make money by forcing people to use video calls instead.

In 2013, Denton County Jail signed a contract with the Dallas-based prison technology firm Securus Technologies. The video visitations service, according to the Securus website, “allows you more convenient access to visit with your incarcerated loved ones.” Some 600 prisons and jails across the country have inked contracts with Securus and similar firms providing video communication technologies to prisoners.

But this “convenience” comes at a cost. Visiting families and friends must pay about $20 for a 20-minute on-site call and anywhere from $5 to $40 for remote calls, depending on the prison.

Denton County Jail
Denton County Jail

Securus’ contract with Denton County initially required the county to end all in-person visits in order to compel people to pay for video communication.

“For all 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,” the contract states.

In 2014, Securus relented, stating that it “would no longer would prohibit in-person visits,” but the Denton County Jail still enforces the policy.

The reason why the Denton County Jail and many like it across the U.S. are keen to deny in-person visitation is that they receive a commission for each video call transmitted through the system — typically 20 to 25 percent of the cost of the call.

“According to our data, about 74 percent of jails that implement video technology end up eliminating or scaling back in-person visits,” said Lucius Couloute, an expert at the Prison Policy Initiative.

The push to implement these changes, according to Texas prisoner rights activist Kymberlie Quong Charles, was to compensate for losses incurred after the FCC ruled in favor of capping prison phone calls rates, a ruling that did not include video calls. Though this Obama-era ruling was reversed in court in 2017, the trend toward replacing in-person visit with video calls is still growing.

SECURUS MARKETS its video visitation program as a cost-effective way to reduce contraband at the correctional facilities — in addition to the kickbacks it pays to prison administrators looking to pad out their budgets.

The Securus CEO also asserts that video calls lower recidivism. But that’s a half-truth at best. In a study by the Vera Institute for Justice, video calls were shown to have led to an increase in face-to-face visitation for the few people who used them, which several research studies have shown to lower recidivism.

In other words, these video call services could, in fact, constitute significant reform and be helpful for incarcerated people, especially if they lead to more communication and contact between prisoners and their families.

But Securus only seeks to provide the services in ways designed to fatten their profits, not expand the frequency of in-person visits by prisoners’ families.

Tiffany Burns used to make frequent visits to the correctional center in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, where her boyfriend Chrishon Brown is being held, and Brown used to call her as often as he could. When she left the center after a visit in October 2017, however, she was handed a pamphlet saying, “Visit an inmate from anywhere!”

The guard, as if translating the pamphlet for her, said, “From now on, no more visits. If you want to see him, read that.” Only later did Burns realize the enormity of the change. “I didn’t realize that would be my last visit,” she told the Guardian.

While Denton County Jail advertises visiting hours on its website, these hours are simply the hours when the jail is open. Visitation can be scheduled and done remotely with Securus or at one of the hubs on site.

The kickbacks — in the form of commissions paid to the prison for each call — aren’t the only reason that correctional facilities have leapt to sign contracts with firms like Securus. Cutting down on in-person visits also means that prison officials can reduce staff needed to supervise visitations.

The cost of these video visitation calls cause one in three families to go into debt in order to keep up with the cost of communicating with their incarcerated loved ones. The denial of face-to-face interaction has a devastating emotional impact on both incarcerated people and their families and friends.

Denying life-affirming visits between prisoners and loved ones in the pursuit of profit is just one of the many inhumane practices of the criminal justice system that should be abolished.

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