Video chats replace in-person visits in US jails and prisons

Rapid spread of for-profit, pay-per-view systems monetizes contact between detainees and their families

PHOENIX — Arizona mother Cathy Seymour’s 16-year-old son was arrested in August 2013 for allegedly shooting a detention officer to death and was charged with first-degree murder as an adult and held in a jail.

Now she uses her laptop and a video link to spring him from maximum security detention in the 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix, take him on a virtual tour of some of his favorite places and visit with family and friends.

"If there's Wi-Fi and you have a laptop, you don't have to stay in your home," she says of the recently installed pay-per-view system that links a video terminal in the jail to her laptop at a cost of $5 for 20 minutes.

"His favorite spot is McDonald’s, so we went to McDonald’s … I'll show him, like, the street … He gets to see other people … He gets to see my mom and dad and church," said Seymour, who spoke to Al Jazeera America on the condition that her son not be named.

She is among thousands of family members nationwide using pay-per-view video chats to connect with loved ones who are incarcerated. The technology is gaining traction in jail systems across the U.S. in a push by the for-profit prison industry to monetize inmate contact.

At the end of 2014, 388 U.S. jails — about 1 in 8 — offered pay-per-view video visits, and the service was also available in 123 prisons, according to a study by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

Since the report was published in January, the PPI has become aware of at least 25 additional jails that have implemented the technology. Once video visitation systems are in place, most jails eliminate in-person family visits, securing a captive market for private firms. Seven companies dominate the market, and for 20 minutes, they charge from $5 in Maricopa County, Arizona, to $29.95 in Racine County, Wisconsin.

Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said the video-only visitation has eliminated the ability of visitors and inmates to pass contraband like drugs, cell phones and knives.
Tim Gaynor

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Phoenix has the largest system in the country, installed by Texas-based Securus Technologies, the market leader, serving more than 2,600 public safety, law enforcement and corrections agencies and over 1 million inmates. The firm installed the system at no cost to the county in return for a hefty cut of the fees, in a contract that allows attorneys and clergy to continue to visit in person.

The system, which went live in November, consists of 602 screens among six jails currently housing some 8,200 inmates. To connect with jailed loved ones, visitors have to open an account using a government photo ID, then book visits at least 24 hours in advance.

One visit a week is free but must be made using terminals at the county's 4th Avenue or Lower Buckeye jails, where hours are limited to 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Paid visits made with a credit card, linking visitors via a laptop to inmates, are available from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and are unlimited.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his staff said the video-only visits have eliminated the opportunity for visitors and inmates to pass contraband like drugs, cellphones and knives and have reduced the burden on custodial staff tasked with taking inmates to and from visiting areas and conducting searches. Families, meanwhile, no longer have to make trips to the jail in searing summer heat, which regularly tops 110 degrees, officials said.

The contract with Securus will also stream 10 percent of revenue to the sheriff's office after the system hits 8,000 paid visits a month — it currently averages just over 6,000 — which would go to the inmate services fund, used for programs to educate and rehabilitate detainees.

"It's good for the visitors. It's good for our organization. It makes sense management-wise," Arpaio said in an interview at his office, a couple of blocks from the 4th Avenue Jail.

For Seymour, the pay-per-view video visits help her maintain a relationship with her teenage son, with whom she shares as many as four video chats a day. "He's in an ugly place now … I don't agree with the sheriff on much, but there is benefit to it," she said of the system.

But others are not sold on the pay-to-view visiting industry. Among the critics is Jorge Renaud, a policy analyst with the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Previously he was imprisoned for 17 years for robbery. Then after graduating from college and earning a master’s degree, he spent three months in the Travis County Jail in Austin, Texas, last year after being arrested for a driving offense. Even though his family and girlfriend lived locally, they were not permitted to visit him in person and had to use a video link operated by Securus, which charges $1 a minute for off-site visits.

"With face-to-face visits, there's just a sense of that person sitting across from you. You see their chest rising and falling. You can see them crying … There's just that psychological validation of someone taking the time to be there with you," he said.

In video visitations, by contrast, "what's going on there is a further distance. You're creating frustration and anomie for the people who are incarcerated, and then we're returning them to the community. And I think we're doing a disservice not only to the people who are incarcerated but to the community to which they'll be returned," he said. "Nothing good comes from that humiliation."

Renaud’s observation is supported by a study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections four years ago that found that family visits can reduce the likelihood of an inmate reoffending by 13 percent. Nevertheless, after installing video visiting technology, 74 percent of jail facilities ended in-person visitation, according to PPI research.

One young mother who trekked out to visit her husband at the Lower Buckeye Jail in western Phoenix one recent weekday afternoon was frustration with the ban on face-to-face visits. "For me, I guess, face to face, it feels like we're close, even though we can't touch or anything ... It feels like we're closer," she said as her daughter, about 6 years old, tugged impatiently at her arm. The spotless new visitor center consisted of 56 stainless-steel-encased monitors and seven closed booths for attorney visits. "It's just better when you just see a person up front." 

Complaints about poor quality images, screen freezes and delayed audio by users of for-profit video visitation systems are common. A review of Securus by the nonprofit Better Business Bureau recorded 448 complaints in the last three years —the vast majority over service and billing issues. Two calls to Securus by Al Jazeera America seeking comment were not returned.

Another criticism was losing visitation minutes as inmates were not able to log in at the scheduled time. Among those riled was Kyle Temmallo, an inmate at the Lower Buckeye Jail who complained that he lost most of a weekly 20-minute visit with his mother and a friend.

"It began 12 minutes late. They didn't even let me out of my room to go and log onto the screen … until there was about eight minutes left, so I missed the majority of it," said Temmallo, dressed in striped jail garb, his hands in cuffs. Asked how he felt about it, he said, "Upset."

The boom in for-profit video visitation is also transforming the way lawyers work with their clients. Some criminal defense attorneys, like Marci Kratter in Phoenix, find much to like.

Before the system went live in November, Kratter had to drive to a jail, park, sign in and go to a visitation area to wait for her client in what she described as an "at least a two-hour ordeal." Now with video visitation, "it's 20 minutes. You do it from your desk … As far as rapport building goes and trust, when you can check in with [your clients] every week, they know you're thinking about them."

However, Kratter was skeptical about assurances by the sheriff's office that the chats are not recorded.

"When I need to discuss with them issues germane to their defense or what a witness said … anything with substance, I'm not going to do it over the computer, because I don't trust them," she said. "I'm a bit of a cynic, so I have concerns about whether what's discussed over the Internet is actually privileged and that there's not some way that they are recording it."

Concerns over attorney-client confidentiality are the subject of a lawsuit brought in July by defense attorneys in Travis County against Securus, the sheriff's office and other county officials. It alleges that video visits in jail facilities in the Austin area were used to illegally record attorneys’ confidential calls with their clients, which were then unlawfully disclosed to prosecutors, in violation of defendants' legal rights. A ruling is expected in coming weeks.

In New Orleans, public defenders have sued Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, arguing he has failed to provide "private and constitutional attorney-client visitation" at the jail. Of particular concern is the video visitation system at the Temporary Detention Center, which they said is fraught with technical problems that make it "impossible" to build relationships of trust with their clients.

"The quality of these video systems is incredibly poor,” said Jee Park, a deputy district defender in Orleans Parish. “The way the camera is angled on the video … it's impossible to see your client's face. You can only see the top of the client's head."

"It hinders our representation of our client. It hinders their defense. It hurts them because we're not able to provide effective representation to them because we're not able to build or have that attorney-client relationship that is essential in any representation," she added.

Much of the growth in video visitation has occurred in the past two to three years as prison and jail telephone companies have bundled video into contracts for other services, according to the PPI study. Larger operators such as Securus, JPay, TurnKey Corrections and Renovo Software provide bundled services. Some include money transfers and even music downloads.

The PPI recognizes that there are benefits from video visitation, particularly for families seeking to maintain contact with loved ones locked up in different states as well as reducing disruption for children and opening up sometimes restrictive contact hours. However, it is opposed to the drive to replace free face-to-face visits with paid video visits.

"We think it's short-sighted and counterproductive. If we want people to have family ties and re-enter society, we need to encourage communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones," said Bernadette Rabuy, a co-author of the PPI study. "We think that it's even worse that we have private companies deciding … corrections policy." 

As the for-profit video visitation industry grows, it is encountering pushback in some communities, among them Dallas, where Securus is based. In an editorial in November, The Dallas Morning News urged commissioners in Dallas County to weigh the pros and cons of a proposal by the firm to install a paid video visitation system in the county jail.

"This newspaper has no problem with businesses making a profit off their services. However, we share … concerns not just about high charges but also the gross unfairness of imposing hefty fees on those least able to afford them: the poor who dominate the inmate population," it read.

Some sheriff’s offices are heeding community concerns, among them the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in Oregon, which contracts with Securus for video visitation at Portland jails. In January, Sheriff Daniel Staton reversed a ban on in-person visits and announced that families could visit face to face or through video.

"The sheriff was listening to the public, and the feedback he was given was that people did want to have the through-the-glass option," office spokesman Lt. Steve Alexander said in a telephone interview. "He wanted to increase that family contact. He wanted to increase the options that were available to those families and their loved ones and friends of the person, because any time we can increase that contact, it's a good thing," he added.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, said it has begun outreach to libraries and churches in the Phoenix valley to try to ensure remote access to families without their own laptops or high-speed Internet connections. But Arpaio, who styles himself "America's toughest sheriff," said he has no plans to reconsider video-only visitation.

"I think it's acting as deterrence to run a tough but fair system to keep people from coming back. I would be against this program of visitation if they loved it, and they said … 'I don't care about violating the law in Maricopa County. Put me in jail,'" he said.

"Once you start a policy and it's constitutional and legal, I very seldom back down,” he added. “So you don't give in because a small group doesn't like it. You look at the big picture."

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