May 14, 2018
When Rebecca Parr visited her nephew Justin Harker recently at the Knox County Jail in Tennessee, she didn't get the opportunity to see him face to face—or even through glass. Instead, she was ushered into a cramped, crowded room for a "video visitation." She talked to him on a telephone handset while watching a grainy video feed of his face.
"I have experienced prison visitation a lot in my life," she told Ars—her father spent some time in prison when she was a child. "This was the most dehumanizing and impersonal that I've ever experienced. I've visited through glass before and that broke my heart when that happened. This was even worse."
On the kiosks Parr and Harker used, the video camera was several inches above the screen. As a result, "when you look at the person on the screen, you cannot look them in the eye," Parr said. "There's no eye contact whatsoever."
In recent years, more and more jails have introduced video-calling services. Theoretically, these products could make it easier for inmates to maintain their relationships with family and friends outside. But many jails have moved in the opposite direction, using the advent of these "video visitation" services as an excuse to restrict or eliminate traditional in-person visits.
There are a number of reasons jail administrators have gone this route. But critics say that money plays a big role.
In-person visitation requires more staff supervision—both to escort inmates to and from visitation rooms and to make sure no contraband changes hands during a visit. So switching to video visitation can save cash-strapped jails money.
But jails also profit more directly from limiting in-person visits. While on-site video visits are usually free, the companies providing the system generally offer a paid off-site video-calling service, too. And jails get a hefty percentage of that money.
Alex Friedmann, a prisoner-rights advocate at the Human Rights Defense Center, told Ars that, rather than awarding the contract to the company with the best rates, jails often pick the company that will pay the largest percentage commission to the jail. ("Commission is a euphemism for kickback," Friedmann said). That not only pushes up the prices paid by prisoners' friends and family, it also creates an incentive for jails to make the in-person visiting experience less attractive so they'll make remote calls instead.
I wanted to try the remote calling technology for myself, so I arranged to call Harker using the Knox County Jail's remote video-calling service. The call cost 19 cents per minute and was noticeably worse than a FaceTime or Skype call. It was grainy and jerky, periodically freezing up altogether (though it was not as bad as this hellish demonstration video the video-calling company posted in 2012—at least my call didn't have the annoying buzz heard in the video).
The software required my face to stay centered in the video frame. If my face left the frame, the video went dark—this is apparently a measure to prevent callers from flashing breasts or other body parts.
Harker told me that the quality of on-site calls is better than remote calls. But whether people make remote video calls or use the on-site video visitation system, Harker said that it's no substitute for a face-to-face call.
"It's not the same," he told me.
Video visitation often comes with limits on in-person visits
"Well over 600 correctional facilities across the country have implemented some form of video-calling system," said Lucius Couloute, an expert at the Prison Policy Initiative. "According to our data, about 74 percent of jails that implement video technology end up eliminating or scaling back in-person visits."
In the early years, companies selling video-visitation products would ask jails to sign contracts requiring them to phase out in-person visits. That triggered such an outcry that companies have removed these provisions from more recent contracts.
Nevertheless, the introduction of video-visitation services are often followed by restrictions on in-person visits. Tex Pasley, an attorney with the Knoxville-area prison reform group No Exceptions Prisons Collective, told us that the Knox County Jail introduced its video visitation service in March 2014—then eliminated face-to-face visits the very next month.
"What they said is that the in-person visits were a strain on staff," Pasley told Ars. "The jail population has been increasing largely due to drug use," Pasley said. Officials were also concerned about contraband being smuggled into the jail.
But Pasley believes that the potential revenue from video visitation was also a significant factor.
"The county takes a 50-percent commission off the top," he told us. Between March 2014 and November 2017, the county collected $68,777 from the service—or around $20,000 per year.
A Knox County spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
The 19-cent-per-minute rate charged at the Knox County Jail is actually low by national standards, Friedmann told us. Other jails charge 50 cents or even a dollar a minute. Commissions vary, but Friedmann said that 20 to 25 percent was typical.
Mainstream video-calling services like Skype and FaceTime are free, of course, but they're rarely available to inmates. One reason that the video-calling services in jails cost money is that the companies providing the software also typically provide hardware, which are generally locked-down touchscreen kiosks. By contracting these services out, jails avoid the costs of acquiring, installing, and maintaining the hardware themselves.
But charging for access inherently limits who can use it—and how often. The friends and families of inmates are often poor, so even modest fees can be a significant deterrent to regular use.
Critics say limiting visitation is shortsighted
Replacing in-person visitation with video visits saves jails some cash and some hassle. But prisoner-rights advocates argue that eliminating in-person visitation for friends and family is shortsighted.
"Visitation should be seen as a public good," Couloute argues. "When people are able to visit with their incarcerated loved ones, we see that recidivism drops. That's better for taxpayers and public safety. Disciplinary infractions drop as well. That's better for correctional officers and jails."
It's not just prisoner-rights advocates who are making these arguments, either.
"Studies confirm that incarcerated individuals have better outcomes when they receive in-person visits from family members and supportive community members," wrote the Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections in a 2014 report.
The report found that video visitation was likely to have significant benefits for both inmates and society. However, the agency argued that video visits shouldn't become a substitute for face-to-face visits.
"Traditional, in-person visiting is a best practice that should continue in all correctional settings when possible," the report said.
That view was echoed by the American Correctional Association, an organization that provides accreditation for jails. "Regular communication between offenders and their family and friends is proven to aid the reentry process," the group wrote in a 2016 position statement. "Correctional agencies should promote communications between offenders and their family and friends."
In-person visits help to nurture an inmate's relationships with family members, romantic partners, children, and friends. Stronger relationships mean that inmates are more likely to get help—including a place to stay and assistance finding a job—after serving their time. That, in turn, makes it less likely that they'll commit further crimes, saving taxpayers money in the long run.
The group urged correctional facilities to maintain visitation programs and to use new technologies only "as supplements to existing in-person visitation."
"We should allow these visits so people can maintain good relationships," Couloute argues. That way, they'll be able to "do their time, get out, and do well afterwards."