To visit her son in jail in the suburbs of Austin, Texas, Barbara Brutschy would get on a plane and fly 1,700 miles from her home in Oregon. She would arrive at the jail, go through security checks, including metal detectors, all airport-style. An hour later, she would sit down in a booth, wait, and after a couple of minutes her son, Richard Fisk, would appear—on a video screen.
Video visitation, as it’s called, is the latest innovation in America’s jails. Hundreds of jails have introduced on- and off-site video visitation since it became widely available two-to-three years ago. (In 95 known cases, jails are using it to replace in-person visits altogether.) Jail authorities say it’s more secure, less costly to supervise, and better for inmates too, as it allows jails to extend visiting hours. Prisoner advocates, once optimistic about its potential, now see something more sinister: A financially-squeezed jail system and a handful of private communications companies creating an environment where inmates are exploited, often at considerable financial and emotional cost.
For Fisk’s family, visiting him in prison meant flying hundreds of miles just to see him on a screen. The other option offered by the facility: A remote video call using a laptop. But this wasn’t really an option at all. It was expensive, and invariably, the connection would fail, said Fisk’s sister, Melissa Brown.
“It’s torture,” Brown told Quartz about not being able to see her brother in person during his year and a half, pre-trial detention at the Travis County Correctional Facility in Del Valle, near Austin. The jail eliminated in-person visits, with some exceptions, in May 2013. “They use the same facility that used to have visits behind glass,” she said. There’s a partition, and the other side of it is just empty, as the inmates access the booths in their living quarters. “You’re sitting there as if you’re looking at somebody,” but what you’re actually looking at are “the monitors that they stuck in the corner.”
Fisk echoed his sister. “It’s torture,” he said on a call to Quartz from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice state prison in Huntsville where he is held now after agreeing to a plea deal in 2014 for aggravated sexual assault. “They are essentially cutting you off from all human contact.” The video connection would lag and freeze, he said, not unlike what you would expect from a “laptop with a slow connection.” “With the glitching and all that, you really don’t get the emotional connection. It’s not really the same. It’s like watching them on TV.”
Twelve million people pass through the US jail system each year, most of them in pre-trial detention or serving short terms. Jails are run by counties, while prisons, where inmates serve longer sentences, are managed by state and federal authorities. Video visitation is much more commonly used in jails reported advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative.
“The whole purpose of video visitation was to cut down on man hours and the movement inside the jail of our inmates,” said Charlie Littleton, chief deputy sheriff at Bastrop County, Texas, which introduced video visitation and banned face-to-face in November 2014.
Jail authorities commonly say they cut labor costs when guards do not have to escort prisoners from their cells to the visiting room. It’s unclear exactly how much the jails are saving. When asked about whether they had calculated their savings over the course of the ban, Littleton said they hadn’t “run the figures”.
Another benefit that’s touted is increased safety through a reduction of contraband and violent incidents. But because visits in county jails often occur through glass—the kind you see in movies, where the inmate sits on one side of the partition and the visitor on the other, with phone receivers on both ends—how video visits promote safety is not apparent. In fact, records from Travis County showed an overall increase in infractions and contraband after banning face-to-face visitation.
Authorities say that installing video systems makes it easier for families to visit. That’s how the systems are marketed as well. “By leveraging the technology, facilities are able to provide far more hours of operation for visits for friends and family,” Tim Eickhoff, a vice president at GTL told Quartz.
But those extended hours can come with a catch, prisoners and their families have found. In some cases, the frequency of free on-site visits has been curtailed, forcing families to use paid off-site services to communicate. Though this was not the case in Travis County, where the system is run by Texas-based Securus Technologies Inc., the number of visits actually decreased after video calls replaced face-to-face visitation. (The number of visits was highest when both in-person and video visits were offered).
A survey conducted by the Travis County administrators showed that while families reported overall satisfaction with the system, a staggering 91% of respondents preferred face-to-face visits. The sheriff’s department is now considering a budget proposal that would bring back in-person visits to approximately 70% of the jail’s population.
The Denton County Jail, also in Texas, eliminated in-person visits on Jan. 31. Inmate Derrick Matthew Rice’s family sued the sheriff, Securus Technologies, and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards over the decision. The lawsuit says the ban goes against state regulations that guarantee inmates two visits a week, arguing that “visitation” could only be only understood as in-person contact.
Craig Tims, the inmate’s stepfather, told the Denton Record Chronicle that with their busy schedules, both he and his wife find it difficult to book the video call, which has to be done 24 hours in advance. And then, there’s the quality of the call: “We have heard from other inmates he is housed with how bad it is; it’s a joke….So for now we just talk to him on the phone that’s also through Securus, and while it’s expensive, we are guaranteed he is on the other line.”
The financial cost to prisoners and their families of video calls can be considerable. A Securus video call can cost as much as $1.50 per minute–all of which falls on the outside caller. That means a 20-minute video call can cost as much as $30—for a service not very different from Skype or Google Hangouts, that most of us in the outside world use for free. Some companies also add a flat service charge, further hiking up the fees. In Buchanan County, Missouri, the fee to simply deposit money into your TurnKey Corrections phone account is $8.95.
The families of inmates are already at a financial disadvantage, coming largely from low-income backgrounds. Tims said that Rice’s two brothers are students, and can’t afford the paid remote calls.
Starting in 2013, the Federal Communications Commission initiated efforts to limit how much prisons could charge inmates for phone calls, amid public outrage at reports of exorbitant costs. One 15-minute phone call, operated by a private communications company, can cost as much as $12.95 (paywall). But while the commission is beginning to impose caps on costs of phone calls, it did not extend the limits to video visits. (It has “sought comment on the matter” a spokesperson for the FCC tells Quartz.)
“Video visitation is absolutely unregulated. Phones are beginning to be regulated, and I think that most people in the field see video visitation as a way to skirt around that regulation,” says Josh Gravens of advocacy group Texas CURE. The cost is too much, he says, for the quality of the call. “In this day and time, we have such a technological advantage. It’s not even justifiable.”
Private communications companies typically add sweeteners to encourage jails to sign up for their services. These can include the free installation of the systems, as well as significant commissions to the jails for each video call ranging from less than 1% to half of what an inmate is charged, and even 63% in one case, found the PPI report.
For jails, the sweeteners, along with the savings they anticipate, can offer a way to bolster their cash-strapped budgets. As Ann Jacobs, director of the Prison Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York noted, although jail budgets have grown along with the prison population, that growth has only been enough to accommodate basic needs of the facilities. “Correctional authorities are encouraged to get creative where to find profit.”
Securus sometimes requires that jails ban in-person visitation in its contracts with them. One such contract, obtained by PPI, says that “for non-professional visitors, Customer will eliminate all face-to-face visitation through glass or otherwise at the Facility and will utilize video visitation for all non-professional on-site visitors.”
“The problem we have with the Securus contracts is that it’s not the place of a private company to decide correctional policy,” said PPI’S Bernadette Rabuy, one of the authors of the report.
In Dallas, activists succeeded in a loud public campaign in defeating a Securus contract that would require the county jail to ban in-person visits. These contracts usually pass quietly, says Gravens, but in Dallas “people rose up out of pure indignation about something that is so inhumane.” Securus did not respond to Quartz’s requests for comment.
“I think it’s very shortsighted and misguided to provide profit incentives with anything that has to do with incarceration,” said Jacobs.
Video calls are often bundled with phone contracts, as an additional incentive for jail authorities. On its own, so far, video visitation has failed to become a lucrative revenue stream for jails. Some jails have found they need to hit a high number of visits each month to get paid. In Travis County, phone calls generated $840,000 annually for the past two years, while video visitation brings only $9,000-10,000 a year, jail officials said in an April public meeting.
Video visits exact an emotional as well as financial toll on inmates and their families. Jail sentences are relatively short, but some inmates linger in pre-trial detention for as long as six years. Research maintains that the best kind of meeting for inmates is a contact visit, the kind that is offered in state prisons. Studies have repeatedly proven that touch helps with creating social bonds, reducing stress, and increasing trust.
Placing a camera and screens between inmate and visitor eliminates some of the advantages of a visit. “They’re probably less than 500 feet away from you and you feel like they’re still in another state,” said Fisk. Just like with a Skype or FaceTime connection, you can’t maintain eye contact on a video call, because you spend most of your time looking at the screen, not at the camera. “You can never look someone in the eye. It’s impossible.”
Video: Prison Policy Initiative
What’s more, the terminals on the inmate’s side are placed in the living quarters and are not partitioned off, so there’s no privacy. The family member on the outside has to look at the other inmates in the background. “It’s almost like the 9 o’clock news. Others walk behind you and photo-bomb your people,” said Fisk.
The issue of privacy is not just one between the inmate and the family. All video calls are monitored and recorded, and according to one lawsuit, they include those with attorneys, which are meant to be privileged conversations. A group of Austin lawyers and prisoners sued the Travis County authorities in April 2014 over illegal “eavesdropping” on video calls between prisoners and attorneys. In February, a federal judge recommended against dismissing the lawsuit.
Jail authorities diminish the importance of in-person visits. “It’s not that bad,” said Littleton of the on-screen visits. “It’s not much of a difference, they can back up a little bit so it’s not like a mug-shot or something where all you see is their face.”
Crucially, it’s not just the inmates who are being punished when in-person visits are banned, or when the costs of video visits become prohibitive. “There are people on the outside who are living the experience of incarceration with the people who are locked up, who are also not getting a choice in this situation,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles from advocacy group Grassroots Leadership.
“It’s like they want to break you,” said Brown, Fisk’s sister. “How is it helping anyone?”
In the following video, Jaynna Sims describes her experiences with video visitation at the Del Valle facility during a Travis County Commissioners working session on the topic:
Many inmates have children who are severely affected by their parent’s incarceration, be they in jail or in prison. Research shows that parental incarceration can lead to more behavioral or developmental problems than divorce, or even a parent’s death. Visitation—ideally contact, so that the child can touch their parent—is a crucial way of ensuring the child’s well-being. “For some of the inmates, visitation means doing the work of healing relationships while they are serving their time, and that can’t happen when the only way they are able to see one another is through this very destructive service,” said Quong Charles.
When inmates have sustained contact with their families, society benefits as well. Support from friends and family has proven to “reduce the stress associated with reintegration, thereby reducing recidivism rates,” according to a report from the National Institute of Corrections.
Gravens says that while there may be costs associated with in-person visitation, the question must be: “Do we want to let people out that have had very little family contact or do we want to let people out who can go right back into their families having maintained those relationships?” For society, he says, “The answer to that is very clear, we want well connected, well-supported people released from jail.”
Video visitation, if it’s over and above regular face-to-face contact, could be a way to reinforce the positive effects of prison visits. Indeed, “prison advocates have been dreaming for the implementation [of video visitation] for decades,” said Jorge Renaud of the Center for Community Change and himself a former inmate. For her part, Melissa Brown said she would “like to have the option” to talk to her brother through a video call at the state prison where he is now incarcerated.
But, both families and advocates agree, the price of video visitation is too high—both figuratively and literally.