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Video Visitation: Promises vs. Evidence of Experience
Date: September 07, 2015 03:25PM

Video Visitation: Promises vs. Evidence of Experience

With the video visitation trend quietly sweeping the nation’s prisons and jails, authors Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative set out to examine how the industry’s fantastic promises held up against the hard evidence of experience.

In their Prison Policy Initiative report, Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails, published in January 2015, Rabuy and Wagner found that while video technology like Skype or FaceTime can be a great way to stay together for people who are far apart, video visitation is not like Skype or FaceTime. Instead of being a high-quality, free supplement to time spent together, in-person, the video visitation that is sweeping through U.S. jails is almost the exact opposite. The authors found that, “In order to stimulate demand for their low-quality product, jails and video visitation companies work together to shut down the traditional in person visitation rooms and instead require families to pay up to $1.50 per minute for visits via computer screen.”

In their report, Rabuy and Wagner collected the contracts and the experiences of the facilities, the families, and the companies to:
• Determine how this industry works and explain the key differences between video visitation in jails and video visitation in prisons
• Hold the industry’s fantastic promises up against the hard evidence of experience, including the industry’s own commission reports
• Give hard data showing just how unpopular this service is
• Identify the patterns behind the worst practices in this industry, finding that the most harmful practices are concentrated in facilities that contract with particular companies
• Analyze why the authors of correctional best practices have already condemned the industry’s preferred approach to video visitation
• Review the unanimous opposition of major editorial boards to business models that try to profit off the backs of poor families, when we should be rewarding families for trying to stay together
• Identify how video visitation could be implemented in a more family-friendly way and highlight two small companies who have taken some of these steps

The industry and correctional facilities have largely focused on the promised benefits of video visitation, but reform advocates have long expressed their concerns. These pros and cons of video visitation are cited by the authors:

• Most prisons and some jails are located far away from incarcerated people’s home communities and loved ones.
• Prisons and jails sometimes have restrictive visitation hours and policies that can prevent working individuals, school-age children, the elderly, and people with disabilities from visiting.
• It can be less disruptive for children to visit from a more familiar setting like home.
• It may be easier for facilities to eliminate the need to move incarcerated people from their cells to central visitation rooms.
• It is not possible to transmit contraband via computer screen.

• Visiting someone via a computer screen is not the same as visiting someone in-person.
• In jails, the implementation of video visitation often means the end of traditional, through-the-glass visitation in order to drive people to use paid, remote video visitation.
• Video visitation can be expensive, and the families of incarcerated people are some of the poorest families in the country.
• The people most likely to use prison and jail video visitation services are also the least likely to have access to a computer with a webcam and the necessary bandwidth.
• The technology is poorly designed and implemented.
• Technological glitches can be even more challenging for lawyers and other non-family advocates that need to build trust with incarcerated people in order to assist with personal and legal affairs.

Rabuy and Wagner found that while there are tremendous differences in the rates, fees, commissions, and practices in each contract, three significant patterns are common:
1. Most county jails ban in-person visits once they implement video visitation.
2. Video visitation contracts are almost always bundled with other services like phones, email, and commissary, and facilities usually do not pay anything for video visitation.
3. Unlike with phone services, there is little relationship between rates, fees, and commissions beyond who the company is.

While virtually no state prisons ban in-person visitation, the authors found that 74% of jails banned in-person visits when they implemented video visitation. Two of the industry leaders, Securus and Telmate, claim that in order to be economically viable, they must ban in-person visitation, but some of their competitors have found other, more reliable ways to stimulate demand.

The growth of video visitation has been substantial and now more than 500 facilities in 43 states are utilizing some form of it. Rabuy and Wagner believe, ”Right now, while the service is still new and evolving, we have a unique opportunity to shape the future of this industry; lest its worst practices become entrenched as standard procedure. While this report identifies some clear negative patterns – namely the frequency by which jails ban in-person visitation after adopting this technology – the diversity of practices in this market gives us hope that video visitation could be positive for both facilities and families.”

The report concludes by making 23 recommendations for the Federal Communications Commission, state regulators and legislatures, correctional officials and procurement officials, and video visitation companies on how they could ensure that video visitation brings families together and makes our communities stronger instead of weaker.

According to Rabuy and Wagner correctional officials and procurement officials should:
1. Explicitly protect in-person visits and treat video only as a supplemental option
2. Refuse commissions that drive up the cost to families which lead directly to lower communication
3. Scrutinize contracts for expensive bells and whistles that facilities do not want or need
4. Put some thought in to where the terminals are located so as to maximize privacy
5. Refuse to sign contracts that give private companies control over correctional decisions, including visitation schedules, when it is acceptable to limit an incarcerated person’s visitation privileges, or the ability of people in correctional custody to move within the facility
6. Refuse to sign contracts that bundle multiple services together that make it impossible to determine whether you are getting a good deal
7. Consider the benefits of providing incarcerated people a minimum number of free visits per month
8. Invite bids where the facility purchases equipment from the companies instead of requiring that all bids be submitted on a no-cost basis
9. Experiment with regional video visitation centers for your state prison system and remote jails
10. Insist on contracts where companies list and justify not just the cost of each video visit, but all fees to be charged to families.
11. If the facility allows the company to install any terminals for onsite visitation use by visitors, do not neglect basic issues like privacy partitions between the terminals and height-adjustable seats so that children and adults of various heights can see the screen and be visible on camera

In summary, Rabuy and Wagner conclude that there are several core problems with video visitation. The cost of video visitation can be a large burden on families who are already dealing with significant stresses. The cost coupled with bans on in-person visits can eliminate the possibilities for families to visit. They state, “Video visitation can add to the already significant trauma that children of incarcerated parents face, especially young children who are unfamiliar with the video technology.”

Rabuy and Wagner still have hope that video visitation can lead to positive outcomes for both facilities and families. Restructuring the system with regulations on cost and limiting bans on in-person visitation, while developing standards for quality can lead to increased access for incarcerated individuals and their families to visitations, which is a key factor in reducing recidivism.

The complete Prison Policy Initiative report Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails by Berdadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner may be found at: [static.prisonpolicy.org].

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