Why Prison Video Visitation Isn't "Just Like Skype"

As discussed here a few weeks ago, a new report issued by the Prison Policy Initiative takes a harsh look at the burgeoning video visitation business in prisons and jails. More than 500 detention facilities across the country now contract with private companies to provide some form of pay-to-visit technology for families of the incarcerated, including at least seventeen county jails in Colorado.

The PPI report takes the industry to task for charging up to $1.50 a minute for video calls; for low-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 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 banning in-person visits — and sometimes that condition is demanded by the companies supplying the technology. 

Industry advocates say the new systems save manpower and costs and can be more convenient for family members, who might live a great distance from the hoosegow and prefer to visit with their loved one from home, on a computer screen, rather than up-close-and-personal in a hectic visiting room. Some have even contended that the approach is "just like Skype." But that's a defense critics of the industry have been quick to ridicule; after all, a Skype session with a far-flung friend doesn't cost money, and you have a good chance of seeing a face rather than a forehead. 

Playing on the "just like Skype" theme, PPI has produced four short videos now available on YouTube, featuring two comics riffing on the familiar PC vs. Mac commercials and savaging the industry. Here's a sample. 

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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

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