Ripping Off Prisoners and Their Families One Minute at a Time

Since the mid-1980s, prison privatization has experienced unprecedented growth. Totally absorbed with profit making, it is safe to say that daily life for prisoners has not been enhanced. One of the few bright spots for many prisoners has been the face-to-face family visit. Now, along comes something called video visitation, the latest profit-making venture trying to suck money out of the pockets of prisoners and their families. Video visitation is a phenomenon that “has been quietly sweeping the nation’s state prisons and county jails,” a report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) pointed out. “Currently, more than 500 facilities in 43 states and the District of Columbia are experimenting with video visitation,” according to the non-profit, non-partisan PPI. Earlier this year, the Prison Policy Initiative released “Screening Out Family Time”: “its first comprehensive national survey of the video visitation industry.” Maya Schenwar, Truthout’s editor-in-chief and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, discussed the report in a mid-February piece. Bernadette Rabuy, Policy and Communications Associate with PPI, and co-author of the report (along with Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, and a co-author of the Prison Policy Initiative’s oft-cited previous expose Please Deposit All of Your Money: Kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry), told Real News Network’s Eddie Conway that, while video visitation has its upside—allowing family members living far from their imprisoned relatives to stay in touch—it also is “being implemented to replace traditional visits.”

“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 they’re having a more personal visit,” Rabuy added. “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 breathing. Different things like that are just lost by these glitchy video visitation systems.”

Then there’s the question of the price for a video visitation, which usually costs $1.00 a minute and can run as high as $1.50 per minute.

Screening Out Family Time detailed some of the benefits, and “serious drawbacks” of video visitation. The benefits include: easier access for family members “located far away from incarcerated people’s home communities and loved ones”; dealing with “restrictive visitation hours and policies that can prevent working individuals, school-age children, the elderly, and people with disabilities from visiting”;  making it “less disruptive for children to visit from a more familiar setting like home”; makes it easier “for facilities to eliminate the need to move incarcerated people from their cells to central visitation rooms”; and, “it is not possible to transmit contraband via computer screen.”

Serious drawbacks include: the depersonalization of visiting via computer screen; “the end of traditional, through- the-glass visitation”; “Video visitation can be expensive, and the families of incarcerated people are some of the poorest families in the country”; “The people most likely to use prison and jail video visitation services are also the least likely to have access to a computer with a webcam and the necessary bandwidth”; Poor technological design and implementation has resulted in numerous customer complaints; “Technological glitches can be even more challenging for lawyers and other non-family advocates that need to build trust with incarcerated people in order to assist with personal and legal affairs.” According to PPI’s report, “While there are tremendous differences in the rates, fees, commissions, and practices in each contract, three significant patterns are common. Most county jails [74 percent] ban in-person visits once they implement video visitation; Video visitation contracts are almost always bundled with other services like phones, email, and commissary, and facilities usually do not pay anything for video visitation; and, unlike with phone services, there is little relationship between rates, fees, and commissions beyond who the company is.” The report noted that “Video visitation is rarely a stand-alone service, and 84% of the video contracts we [PPI] gathered were bundled with phones, commissary, or email. Sometimes it is obvious that the bundling of contracts persuades counties to add video visitation.” The purveyors of video visitation make a strong pitch to penal officials, claiming that families of prisoners will embrace the opportunity, and the facilities themselves will be safer, save money, and have an additional source of revenue, that is, a portion of which is kicked back to the jails. There are several companies vying to provide video visitation services. In December 2014, Bloomberg Business’ Joshua Brustein reported on Global Tel-Link, a company that is “hardly a household name, [but] is painfully familiar to hundreds of thousands of families on the receiving end of prepaid calls from inmates.” Global Tel-Link, along with Securus, and Telmate are the three largest video visitation providers. Brustein pointed out that Global Tel-Link leads the field in providing video visitation services. And, due to its “exorbitant” pricing, “the federal government is getting serious about reform.” Video visitation is being implemented more in county jails than state prisons. PPI’s Rabuy speculated 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.”

Ironically, it is in county jails where “a huge portion of the population that hasn’t even been convicted yet, and who likely aren’t too far from their families, so the families actually have a greater opportunity to visit.”



Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.