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  April 19, 2015

Organizations Fight the For-Profit Video Visitation Industry

Prison Policy associate Bernadette Rabuy discusses the grassroots activism that is taking on corporations profiting off jail video visitations
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EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Thank you for joining The Real News. I'm Eddie Conway from Baltimore, and we're returning with part two of our discussion on video visitation with Bernadette Rabuy.

Bernadette Rabuy joined the Prison Policy Initiative as a policy communication associate in August of 2014. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, she has previously worked with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Voice of the Ex-Offender, and Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

Bernadette lead the research on the video visitation industry, and co-authored the first comprehensive national survey of the industry, Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails.

Thank you for joining me, Bernadette.


CONWAY: Are there other organizations out there looking at this video visitation in -- with an eye toward some kind of reform? Or at least bringing it to the public attention? Because I think it's happening and it's slowly creeping in to the prison systems. I think you reported it's in, like, 500 prisons already. So who's watching this, and who's responding to it?

RABUY: Right. So we … we have seen a lot of action in Texas. For example, there have been protests recently in Denton County, Texas. They are trying to get the sheriff to reverse his ban on in-person visits, which was implemented in January.

There were actually two new lawsuits as of yesterday about their video visitation, in Denton County, Texas. One is saying that Texas has these two standards about the need to provide two visits per week for each incarcerated person in Texas, and the argument of this one lawsuit is that those visits that are a standard, those were intended to be in-person visits, not video visits. And then another class-action lawsuit about Securus, which is the company that provides video visits in Denton, them having a monopoly over the service.

So there's been really great on-the-ground work in Texas. In Dallas in Texas, they actually got their county legislators to remove the ban on in-person visits before they implemented video visits. So they will be implementing video visits, but as a supplement, rather than as a replacement to in-person visits.

Then in January, we actually also had the sheriff of Multnomah county, which is where Portland is, he reversed his ban on in-person visits after pressure from a homeless newspaper, Street Roots, as well as county legislators. So we've definitely been seeing some people really working to make sure that these video visitation systems aren't just punishing families and incarcerated people.

CONWAY: And I wonder, is anybody looking at the impact that these kind of visitations are having in terms of causing people to get further and further away from their family in terms of not having that human contact, and not having that real physical interaction? Does, is that going to actually start diminishing prisoners in terms of how they fit in to the social network that they're a part of, as family members?

RABUY: Right, so yeah. That's a problem of the video visitation, is there's an impact that it has on family members who want to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones, but also it's just not smart for public safety. In fact, it violates best standards provided by the American Correctional Association, and the American Bar Association. And it's, we haven't done the research in terms of whether or not a video visit is the same as in-person visits. And the research that is out there about video visitation says it isn't, and really talks about how video visitation can be beneficial as a supplemental option.

Another study that was done, besides the one that we did here at Prison Policy Initiative, was done by the Osborne Association and funded by the Department of Justice. And they make the same argument, that video visitation shouldn't be seen as an invitation to ban traditional visits.

CONWAY: Who is making money from this? I heard you mention one company, and I think there's other companies you named in the report. Who's actually profiting from this?

RABUY: It's many of the same people who are in the phones industry. Securus is the biggest company providing video visitation in county jails, and they charge a $1.00 per minute, generally. Yeah, they are a big phones company. Another company, for example, is JPay, which provides video visitation in state prisons. They do money transfers.

That's another thing with video visitation. It usually gets added to contracts for other things. So it's much more common for video visitation to be added to a contract for phones, or a contract for money transfers. It's not as common for it to be just a contract for video visitation.

CONWAY: Okay. Here in the state of Maryland, there is already a pilot program that's offering video visitation for family members, and I think they cited somewhere down in downtown Baltimore, a family member can go to the location and have a video visitation. Is the state making money from this? Do you know if this is a profit-making arrangement that the state has set up? Because I know it's already started, but I don't know if it's costing anything or not.

RABUY: I'm not sure about Maryland specifically, but these contracts usually do include a commission, which means the county jail, or the state Department of Corrections does get a portion of the profits from video visitation. The other thing is that these companies, they really make video visitation attractive to county jails and Departments of Corrections, because they offer to provide video visitation free of cost.

So they tell, you know, they tell the sheriff that he doesn't have to pay anything to implement this video system, and on top of that he could even get some revenue from the commission. That's another reason why video visitation's really grown in the past three years.

CONWAY: Okay. And I'm sure this is going to continue to grow, and we're going to have to revisit it again. So thank you for joining me.

RABUY: Thanks so much.

CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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