With Eddie Conway

The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry Quietly Sweeps the Nation’s Prisons and Jails

TRNN producer Eddie Conway speaks with Prison Policy associate Bernadette Rabuy, co-author of Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails.

Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway from Baltimore. I’m here today to look at the initiative that has been sweeping the country in video visitations in prisons. Joining me is a person to have done extensive study in this particular area.

Bernadette Rabuy joined the Prison Policy Initiative as a policy and communications associate in August 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 in 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.

BERNADETTE RABUY, POLICY AND COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE, PRISON POLICY INITIATIVE: Thanks for having me.

CONWAY: Okay. What I’m curious about – what are some of the positive impacts of video visitations, and when should it be applied?

RABUY: Well, I think the most obvious benefit of video visitation is the ability for family members and friends who are living far away from a correctional facility to be able to visit with their incarcerated loved one. So if someone is in a different state than their incarcerated loved one, video visitation offers a much more affordable alternative.

CONWAY: Okay, well, what are the drawbacks, then? I mean, this visitation sounds like it’s something positive.

RABUY: Right. So what we’ve seen is that instead of video visitation being implemented as a supplemental option for families to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones, video visitation is being implemented to replace traditional visits. So that is really harmful, and there are a lot of disadvantage to this practice.

For example, families do not feel as if these video visits are the same as being in person with their incarcerated loved one, even if that means there is that glass barrier, they still feel as if with that glass barrier, they’re having a more personal visit. They can still put their hand up to the glass, and their incarcerated loved one can put his or her hand up to that same piece of glass. Or they can see that person’s … them breathing. Different things like that that are just lost by these glitchy video visitation systems.

Then there are other things. In addition to the high price, these video visits can cost up to $1.50 per minute. They’re also very glitchy, so there are significant audio delays, pixelated images. Those types of things make video visits really not a great alternative, and definitely not a good replacement for through the glass, in-person visits.

CONWAY: Where are these visitations conducted at, and are they private?

RABUY: That’s another problem with these video visits. The main argument that jails and sheriffs give for moving to video visitation systems is that they will be able to save money because they will no longer need to bring incarcerated people from their cells to a central visitation room. But what this means is that these video visitation terminals are located in two places, usually. For the visitors – so the family members who come to the jail – they’re located in a room very similar to a visitation room with regular, traditional visits. And then for the incarcerated person they’re located in the pods of cells.

That creates a privacy problem, because what happens is when a family member is visiting an incarcerated person through a video visitation system, they can see other people in the background, it’s very distracting and it does not feel private or personal at all.

CONWAY: How does this impact the visits with lawyers, when a prisoner and a lawyer have a video visitation? Is this going to jeopardize their confidentiality?

RABUY: Yeah, so we’ve seen some complaints from lawyers in different places throughout the country. There were some complaints in Travis County, in Texas. What happened there is –

So these video visits are recorded, although most of the contracts say that when they’re attorney-client conversations that they should be marked as privileged and not recorded. But what happened in Travis is it was found that some of the visits that were supposed to be privileged were recorded, and some lawyers have filed a suit because they believe that those recordings were turned over to the district attorney’s office. So that’s one problem.

In New Orleans, in Louisiana, we’ve seen something else, where the lawyers have had a very difficult time trying to have … build a relationship with their clients using these frustrating video visitation systems. They talk about trying to have a visit, and the incarcerated person getting up in the middle of the visit because they are simply too frustrated to continue using these glitchy video visitation systems.

CONWAY: What about the people that are most impacted by this whole incarceration thing? Most people, unfortunately, Afro-Americans, they’re from the inner city, and prisons are sometimes hundreds of miles away. Is this video visitation accessible to their family members?

RABUY: Absolutely not. That’s one of the biggest problems, is these video visitation systems are not affordable. So what we’ve seen is the reason that jails and private companies have moved towards, towards these video visitation systems and banned in-person visits is to stimulate the demand for these remote video chats. Because with video visitation there are two options: you can have a remote video chat that you pay for, or you can go to the facility, and you can have a few free visits per week.

For example, many jails will offer two free visits from the jail lobby a week. What ends up happening is because these families cannot afford to pay $1.00 per minute, which is a typical price, $1.00 per minute for a video visit from home, they end up going to the facility, anyway, for their free video visit. So they don’t save any time, they don’t save any expenses, because they’re still going to the facility. And then instead of having an in-person visit, they go to the facility and have to have a visit with a computer screen.

CONWAY: So is this happening in prisons and in jails? And if so, what’s the difference between how it’s working in the jail system and how it’s working in the prison system?

RABUY: Right. What we’ve seen is that in the state prison context, video visitation is being used to supplement. So it’s used as an additional option for families who would like to use the service, and would like to pay to use the remote video visits. In the jail context it’s very different.

We found that 74% of the jails that we collected contracts for banned in-person visits once they implemented video visits. So for jails, they’re really replacing the traditional visits with these video visits.

CONWAY: Well, it’s my understanding that people that are in jails in most cases are in jail for misdemeanors. Very rarely are they in the jail system for felonies. They are [even] awaiting trial and they’re basically very close to the communities in which they were incarcerated from. So obviously, those facilities are more available and closer for family members to reach.

RABUY: Right.

CONWAY: At the same time, the prisons are in some cases 75, 100 miles away. Why is it used in the prison system more than in the jail system? Is this an economic thing?

RABUY: We don’t know for sure why jails are implementing video visitation much more than state prisons. One idea is that jails are more decentralized and run by elected sheriffs, versus if a state prison wants to adopt video visitation it’s likely that they would need to talk to the Department of Corrections, and that process just might take longer. So it’s possible that jails have been able to adopt video visitation more quickly.

But what you talked about is really important, because when we’re talking about county jails, we’re talking about county jails, we’re talking about a huge portion of the population that hasn’t even been convicted yet, and we’re also talking about people who likely aren’t too far from their families, so the families actually have a greater opportunity to visit.

We were actually surprised to find our research that state prisons aren’t using video visitation more, and that it’s actually much more prevalent in this county jail context.

CONWAY: And I guess one of the other things that has struck me as I’m looking at this – and I think you probably covered it in the report. The isolation from, especially in rural areas, it’s almost impossible sometime to go to places like Cumberland, Maryland, which from the major urban centers is anywhere form 150 miles to 200 mile trip in a, or 300 mile round trip. The isolation, on the one hand, causes family members not to be able to get there and to visit people. And then on the other hand, not having these video visits available is, it’s actually, it hampers family members from at least having that kind of contact.

What could be done on the state level to change that? Because in some cases those visits are important and valuable, and in other cases they stop human contact, but I think in the, in the far outlying regions and prisons it’s a necessity, for economics and other reasons, for people to be able to have that.

RABUY: Yeah. I think one thing is that some changes need to be made with the current systems before they’re really expanded. For example, I talked to someone who’s incarcerated in Washington State at a prison where they do have video visitation, and the experience was pretty awful. There were just major audio delays, and it was very grainy, very glitchy.

I asked him, you know, whether people were using the video visitation systems, and what he told me was that no, no one really uses them. Because people have very negative experiences, and that can be very disappointing, especially when, you know, you’re paying for that remote video visit.

In a different state prison in Washington, we talked to an incarcerated person who was there, and he told us – we scheduled a visit with him and found out that their terminals haven’t been working for months. So you know, we’re sitting here waiting for the visit to start, and it just never starts. And he’s sitting there, too.

That’s one of the problems, is that these systems aren’t made to be user-friendly, and they, definitely these companies aren’t thinking about what’s going to benefit incarcerated people and their families. There are a lot of things that can be changed with these video systems to make them, you know, an actual benefit. One place would be, even the costs.

JPay, which is the main provider, they do visitation in state prisons, actually charges a much more reasonable price for video visits than what’s usually charged in the county jails. They usually charge around $0.30 per minute. But we’ve talked to people who say even that is too much. So we definitely believe, you know, the main benefit of video visitation would be in state prisons, but we also would really like some of these changes to be made. We would like these companies to improve their products.

CONWAY: Okay. Are there other organizations out there looking at this video visitation in – with an eye toward some sort 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.

Yeah, 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 again. So thank you for joining me.

RABUY: Thanks so much.

CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.

End

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