Prison Video Visitation Biz Cashing In on Misery, Report Claims

Jails across America are turning increasingly to private companies to cure the headaches posed by family members seeking to visit incarcerated loved ones. But the solutions developed by the emerging "video visitation industry" come at a steep price -- including the stiff costs shouldered by inmates' families, complaints about poor quality and other impacts that may actually discourage inmate visits, according to a new report on the industry.

See also: Reach Out and Gouge Someone: How Inmate Phone Services Lock Up Profits

Skype-like video technology held the promise that relatives could communicate with inmates locked away in distant prisons on their home computers, with the inmate speaking from a terminal in the cellblock at a pre-arranged time. But most of the correctional facilities that have installed video terminals are county jails, not prisons, and the first detailed report on the emerging industry by the Prison Policy Initiative concludes that "what should be a promising additional way for families to stay in touch" also has some serious drawbacks.

The PPI report takes the industry to task for charging up to $1.50 a minute for video calls; for poor-grade technology and poorly placed cameras that affect the ability of family members to make eye contact with prisoners or speak to them apart from the noise and hubbub of their surroundings; and for a profit-driven business model that creates other obstacles rather than facilitates visits, a proven boon to rehabilitation. In many cases, the report notes, the arrival of video visitation has also meant elimination of in-person visits -- and sometimes that condition is demanded by the companies supplying the technology.

But officials at one of the metro area's busiest jails take issue with the report's conclusions, saying the move to video visitation has gone smoothly. "I think it actually encourages visits," says Sgt. Ron Hanavan of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. "It's convenient. You have the ability to do it from your residence, and not all of our inmates have family close to Castle Rock."

In Colorado, at least seventeen county jails now use some form of video visitation. Many, including the Douglas County and Denver jails, have banned in-person visitation as well. The move has obvious security advantages, as it makes it more difficult to smuggle contraband into the facility and requires less staff to monitor visits.

Nationally, more than 500 detention facilities now offer pay-to-visit technology of some sort. PPI's report suggests the greatest touted benefit -- the ability to "visit" from home instead of traveling long distances -- is diminished by the high cost and the lack of computers and bandwidth among the poorest families. There have also been complaints about high commissions charged by some facilities, the picture quality and the ability to adequately communicate with inmates who may be speaking from a terminal in a busy pod, observed by other prisoners.

Hanavan says Douglas County doesn't charge a commission for video visitations. The company they contract with, Telmate, charges $9.95 for a half-hour visit, which works out to $.33 a minute. And visitors can use a terminal at the detention facility to video visit for free up to two times a week. "We really haven't had any complaints," Hanavan says.

The jail has been using Telmate during a trial period for the past seven months; before that, Douglas County had already gone to an in-house video technology and banned in-person visits, finding the new process more "economically feasible." The sheriff's office is currently reviewing responses from multiple vendors for its video visitation contract.

The PPI report concludes with several recommendations for improving the quality of the product, lowering the cost and resisting vendor demands to ban in-person visitation as a cost of doing business.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast