Video Calls Are Replacing In-Person Visits at Some Prisons

For some companies, bans on in-person prison visits mean big business

jail phone
"Our Modern Prison," by Banksy. Leigh Blackall, via Flickr

For many of the millions of Americans serving time in prisons around the country, visits with family and friends are an important lifeline to the outside world. But more and more frequently, prisons are turning to technology to mediate the connections between inmates and their loved ones by cancelling in-person visits and replacing them with remote video screens.

As it is, prison visits are no walk in the park. Often times, visitors and prisoners are both subjected to multiple scans and screenings before sitting down in the same room together – and that’s not counting the many hours and miles people often travel in order to visit for a precious few minutes. Yet, for many people, having those brief moments of time where you can sit in the same room with your friends and family can have a huge impact on an inmate’s behavior and well-being, Jack Smith IV reports for Mic.

"The incredible anticipation and fulfillment of knowing they care enough to come can be the difference between you comporting with the rules, and being more human and aware and knowing the consequences of your actions and being willing to moderate and understand them," Jorge Renaud, a writer, activist, and former inmate at Texas’ Travis County jail, tells Smith.

But as the number of Americans who are incarcerated has rapidly grown over the decades, so have the costs of running those prisons. For years, many prisons have outsourced services to for-profit companies, particularly for things like phone calls. Now, instead of spending money to staff visiting hours, some prisons are turning to those companies to run Skype-like video chats that replace in-person visitations, Tim Moynihan writes for Wired.

“The courts and corrections community is very budget-constrained,” Russ Colbert, a representative of a company called Polycam that designs video chat systems for prisons, tells Moynihan. “We work with the Michigan Supreme Court, and the court has saved more than $2.8 million in prisoner transfers. For a 15-minute prisoner hearing, it’s a 12-hour drive from the courtroom in Lansing. The estimated cost of transferring each prisoner escorted by two guards is approximately $1,800.”

Replacing in-person visitations might save officials money, but much of those savings are passed on to the prisoners’ friends and families. As Eric Ethington writes for the Salt Lake City Weekly, using video chat systems can cost as much as $15 in fees per glitchy, 30-minute call. For families without the means to afford the expensive calls, that can mean going without contacting their incarcerated loved ones or potentially shelling out hundreds of dollars a month for video calls.

"If [video calls] are provided as an option that can be great, because it allows family members who can't physically get [to prison] a way to still connect with their loved ones,” Molly Prince, president of the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, tells Ethington. “But to completely take away contact visits discriminates against people who do not have the money to afford it.”

While some county officials and companies that make these systems often claim that video visitation is better for security, that statement is dubious at best. During an investigation into the practice, Renaud found documents indicating that after the jail he was incarcerated in did away with in-person visitations, incidents of violence, disciplinary actions, and smuggled contraband rose, Smith writes. Not to mention that for decades, research has shown that one of the most important factors in significantly lowering rates of recidivism for former inmates is whether they can maintain their support systems outside of the prison walls.

"People get out eventually, and they're coming back into the community," Jaynna Sims, a friend of Renaud’s who supported him during his time in prison, tells Smith. "If we want to make life as miserable as possible and make sure they don't have growth or healing in jail, we can keep doing what we're doing. But if we don't want them to be worse off when they come back, we have to care about how we treat them in prisons and jails."

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.