In July, a representative of non-profit, Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) contacted Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun with a letter addressing a troubling new trend in California jails and prisons: video visitation.
PPI Policy & Communications Associate Bernadette Rabuy’s letter to Sheriff Braun included PPI’s first national survey report, which detailed the “harmful trend nationwide of county jails working with private companies to replace traditional in-person visits in jails with video visits.”
Video visitation allows people to contact prisoners over the Internet. Typically inmates use a video visitation station located in their cell block, while visitors might use either a corresponding station somewhere else in the facility, or any computer with an Internet connection and webcam.
While supplementing in-person visits with video visits could be beneficial to families living far away from incarcerated loved ones, PPI’s report concluded that replacing in-person visits altogether would be detrimental to both inmates and loved ones. However, this could be the new trend.
Thus far California’s Solano, Napa, Butte, and Placer Counties (in particular, the South Placer Adult Correctional Facility) have all banned in-person visits in favor of video visitation, while San Mateo County has plans to ban in-person visits, according to Rabuy. Orange County’s Musick Facility is planning an expansion that is currently in the design phase; the expansion will be designed with video visitation in mind, but the rest of the facility will still maintain it’s in-person visiting.
“Sacramento County recently put out a request for proposals for a phones and video visitation contract,” Rabuy said. “We don’t know whether they are thinking about banning in-person visits or not. They should be in the phase of working with the few vendors they are most interested in.”
Inyo and Mono Counties both said they are looking into video visitation services, although both also said they would not consider replacing in-person visitation with video visitation.
“Our jail sergeant and lieutenant have actually had some communication with different companies that supply a kiosk for visitation and also inmate stores, where they can buy products, as well as bail and other things like that,” said Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze.
Sheriff Lutze said his staff was looking into video visitation because “it would cut down on the man hours it takes to move people from a cell block to the visitation room and back” during Saturday and Sunday in-person visitation.
Sheriff Lutze said video visitation would also be of benefit to those incarcerated at the Inyo County jail whose loved ones live outside of the County. Lutze estimated that less than 50 percent of inmates are from outside of the area.
Meanwhile Mono County Jail Supervisor Lieutenant Mike Booher said Mono County is also evaluating the possibility of using video visitation.
“Our biggest hurdle so far has been that our inmate population does not make the venture profitable for most companies that provide this secure service,” Lieutenant Booher said. “We will continue to have in-person visits regardless.”
Lieutenant Booher echoed Sheriff Lutz’s assertion that video visitation would be beneficial to those inmates who are not residents of the County, or whose families don’t reside in the County. Of the current 18 residents, eight are not from Mono County, Booher said.
“We think that because of Mono County’s rural location, this would be a benefit to the inmates’ mental health and well-being,” he said.
So why use video visitation, and why not use it?
PPI’s report concluded that video visitation does have benefits, such as those alluded to by Sheriff Lutz and Lieutenant Booher. That said, the report found several troubling effects of video visitation, particularly when it supplanted in-person visitation.
Several video visitation users quoted in the report described the service as “impersonal” and downright frustrating, with fixed camera angles that don’t allow users the impression of eye contact, as well as frequent glitches like freezes and audio lags.
The report also noted the cost of using video visitation: although most companies bundle jail or prison video visitation services into phone, email, or commissary contracts, these companies nevertheless charge users an additional fee. The highest quoted in the report was $1.50 per minute, which means a 20 minute conversation would cost $30.
However, the people most likely to use jail or prison video visitation services are some of the poorest in the country, and “are also the least likely to have access to a computer with a webcam and the necessary bandwidth,” the report noted.
The report also observed that while state prisons would be the most logical users of video visitation, considering inmates are often far from their loved ones, jails more frequently use video in the 43 states experimenting with video visitation.
More troubling, “While virtually no state prisons ban in-person visitation, we found that 74 percent of jails banned in-person visits when they implemented video visitation,” the report stated.
Some of these jails do so out of a contractual obligation with provider Securus in particular. Securus contracts explicitly require that a jail or prison ban in-person visitation after installing a video visitation system, claiming that this is the only way to make video visitation economically viable.
But the report noted that other providers, like TurnKey Corrections, have “found that when facilities offer families more and better visitation options, families will use remote video visitation more.” Families might save their in-person visits for special occasions, but frequently use video visitation for shorter messages, such as wishing a loved one goodnight, the PPI report found.
The PPI report also discovered that when in-person visits are banned, in some cases video visitation drops dramatically. In Travis County, Texas, “In September 2009, there were 7,288 in-person visits in Travis County jails. In September 2013—a few months after in-person visits were completely banned—there were 5,220 visits. Rather than increase, the total number of visits decreased by 28 percent after the imposition of video visitation because families are unhappy with both free, onsite video visits and the paid, off-site video visits,” according to the report.
Why is a decrease in visitation troubling? Because multiple studies have found that visitation reduces relapse into criminal behavior, also known as recidivism. A study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections quoted in the PPI report found that a single visit reduced recidivism by 13 percent for new crimes and 25 percent for technical violations.
The need remains
The PPI report does acknowledge that, if used wisely, and if the service itself is improved, video visitation could provide a valuable supplement to in-person visitation.
“More contact between incarcerated people and their loved ones—whether in-person, by phone, by correspondence, or via video visitation—is clearly better for individuals, better for society, and even better for the facilities,” the report stated.
That said, the report cautioned that the glitches in video visitation systems, as well as the cost of their use, must be addressed to better meet the needs of video visitation users.
Yet Sheriff Lutze noted that there’s a real need for cheaper, less manpower-intensive forms of visitation.
“I know there’s been some discussion at some of the State sheriff’s meetings where some jails are looking exclusively at video visitation, and I think that’s due to declining resources; to less available staff time, overcrowding, and things like that,” he said.
Sheriff Lutze estimated that about 30 visitors visit inmates at the Inyo County jail per week, or about 1,560 annually. Meanwhile Lieutenant Booher said he estimated about 1,700 annual visits, in part because when California enacted AB 109, “Mono County Jail liberalized our visitation hours. We increased from two days per week to three days and one evening per week.”
But Lieutenant Booher did say that while video visitation might be an attractive option, given the volume of visitors even to smaller jails like those in Inyo and Mono Counties, the cost and complexity of installing the system might still be prohibitive.
“The downside [to video visitation] is that the systems need to be installed in every cell block,” he said. “They are expensive, as they must be secure, i.e. the unit must be tamper-proof so it can’t be dismantled and used as a weapon against another inmate. It also must have the ability to block numbers and persons from being contacted and/or harassed … For these reasons, the technology is expensive to the inmate and their families.”
Addressing the concerns expressed by the PPI report, Sheriff Lutze said he didn’t anticipate video would replace in-person visits in Inyo County anytime soon.
“It could someday, but it probably won’t be in my lifetime, when you get enough population that you don’t have enough staff or space to move people,” he said. But he recognized the importance of in-person visits to inmates and families.
“There’s that personal face to face; the person is sitting there, although there’s a glass shield between them and they talk on the phone,” he said. “Some people bring their children, so the inmate can see the children … It’s the human side of it.”