Video visitation: Jails and corporations profit from the poor

Video visitation is coming to a county jail near you.

Families can take advantage of new technology and talk to their loved ones through video conferencing. On the surface, the concept sounds good.

What could go wrong? What’s wrong is when you mix prisons and profits and companies make money off the backs of prisoners and their loved ones.

Texas is embarking on a revenue-generating scheme that is catching on across the country. Of the 254 counties on the Lone Star state, 13 have signed contracts with a private company to provide video visitation to inmates in county jails. Sixty percent of the people in Texas jails are awaiting trial and are guilty of nothing except not being able to afford to post bond, while the remaining 40 percent are serving a sentence.

County jails in Texas have signed contracts with a company called Securus Technologies to provide video visitation to inmates. Securus, based in Dallas, provides an incentive to these counties to make use of their services.

A county, if it agrees to eliminate all in-person visitations and replace them with video only, receives 20 percent of the profits. For counties that are strapped for cash, the deal is alluring, as videos eliminate the need for officers to staff the visitation sessions. And they are building separate facilities for video visitation, which cost as much as $1 per minute, as the Texas Observer reported.

In addition, Securus is a monopoly with an exclusive agreement with a given county and can keep prices high.

The company — which earns annual revenue over $300 million and provides video services to 2,200 facilities across the country — also has come under fire for illegally recording phone calls between Travis County (Austin) inmates and their defense attorneys and leaking information to prosecutors, as a federal lawsuit alleges.

“[M]any of the individuals being held in county jails are facing trial and need to weigh various legal options not only with their attorney (for whom in-person visitation remains an option) but also with their family (for whom in-person visitation is not an option),” said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. “I can think of nothing more traumatic for a parent than having a child face a face an extended prison sentence and have to weigh the potential pros and cons of a potential plea deal through a video screen.”

“The real story is that this is a money making venture for the company and the county, which eliminates in-person visitation—for money—on the backs of poor people,” said State Rep. Eric Johnson (District 100, Dallas County) in a recent conversation with theGrio. Johnson notes that people from these poor communities, who are typically black and Latino, must see their loved one on video, or not at all.

“People would rather wait two hours to see their loved one in person, and the company knows it,” Johnson added, referring to the Securus agreement with counties as a “sick profit motive.”

And with a lack of competition, quality suffers. What the private company is offering amounts to an inferior version of Skype, with horrible, grainy video quality and bad connections that often drop or are interrupted, without refunds.

Further, with downward camera angles, there is no eye contact.  Visitors are only able to view detainees from the neck up and are unable to assess their health or physical condition.

There are a number of other problems associated with completely replacing in-person visits with video. For example, those who would most likely use the remote video lack access to computers and webcams. In addition, the absence of personal contact between prisoners and their children only serves to sever family ties.

Even a glass barrier is more personal than a cold video screen. One Minnesota study found that even one in-person visit can reduce recidivism by 13 percent for new crimes and 25 percent for technical violations.

Further, inmates behave better when they have had contact with their family. According to the Dallas Observer, once Travis County transitioned to video-only visits, inmate infractions jumped, including inmate attacks on staff. Meanwhile, contraband into the jail increased 54 percent, and inmate-on-inmate assaults increased 20 percent.

According to the American Bar Association, “Correctional officials should develop and promote other forms of communication between prisoners and their families, including video visitation, provided that such options are not a replacement for in-person contact.”

Rep. Johnson has introduced legislation in Texas to put the for-profit visitation industry in check and protect in-person jail visits. HB 549 would not end video visitation but would require that county jails allow for in-person visitation with inmates.

In other words, videos could not serve as a substitute for in-person visits. The legislation would “adopt reasonable rules and procedures establishing minimum standards for prisoner visitation that provide each prisoner at a county jail with a minimum of two in-person, noncontact visitation periods per week of at least 20 minutes duration each.”

Currently, 500 jails and prisons in 43 states and the District of Columbia are implementing the video technology.

And while some of the companies who provide video visitation view the product as a supplement rather than a replacement for reaching out and touching someone, it is easy to understand how the profit motive can manipulate the poor.

Video visitation has its benefits, particularly in cases where prisons and jails are located far away from where prisoners’ loved ones live. And maybe facilities will save a little money in the process.

But the cost of forcing people to stay in touch with an incarcerated family member through a video monitor simply is not worth it.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove