Announced as a safety increasing feature, inmate video visitation units instead maximize revenue
When Jefferson County, located about 30 minutes south of St. Louis, announced it installed a inmate video chat system, it became the first jail in the St. Louis area to eliminate in-person visits in favor for video-only visiting sessions.
The addition of video visitations meant face-to-face visits between inmates and visotors were eliminated due to stipulations in a financial incentive package from Securus, a national private company offering correctional facility communications services. Inmates can now chat with friends and loved ones for 30 minutes at a time using the system through a 17-inch LCD monitor at the cost of $15.95 per session. Inmates are allowed two on-site video visitation visits per week free of charge.
The on-site visit video visitation units are often installed directly over the glass previously used for face-to-face visits.
This announcement seems particularly out of place in light of the heightened focus on St. Louis municipal courts reform and other measures to prevent predatory fees and tactics used by area police departments and courts systems.
These video visitation costs and fees are predominately paid for by family members and other loved ones trying to keep in contact with someone incarcerated. These fees are in addition to high costs associated with inmate phone calls, emails, and other forms of communication.
The often cited reason jail officials give for making the switch to video chat systems over in-person visits is that it limits incidents when transporting inmates to and from in-person visits, as was noted by Jefferson County officials. However, the main selling point by video visitation providers, like Securus Technologies, is that video visitation units create another revenue stream for fund-strapped prison systems.
I gathered documents about the video system through freedom of information act requests to Jefferson County that detailed the RFP, provider submissions, email communications about the system, and the contract chosen to provide services to the county.
Among many technical and structural requirements for the video chat system, the RFP and proposals submitted largely focused on selling points describing the levels of commissions, incentives, and fees each company charged for video and phone services.
Within their requirements, Jefferson County listed “the system must generate maximum financial return to the County.”
Securus Technologies was selected as the winner among submitted bids to Jefferson County.
The “Option 1” within a bid from Securus includes waving upfront costs by installing the system, totalling $180,025 in incentives, but selecting that option over the one with no incentives incoporates many tactics to maximize paid visits over the free on-site visits.
One of those requirements is to eliminate all face-to-face and in-person visits.
After eliminating all options other than video visitation, the contract includes language encouraging the County to “endeavor to reach at least one remote paid session per inmate per month.”
Further restrictions require Jefferson County to reduce on-site visitation availability to no more than 20 hours per week and to further reduce on-site visitation hours over time to achieve an average of one remote video paid visit per month.
Before the county installed the system, it made no money when inmates had visitors. After two years into their contract with Securus, the county will generate at least $3.19 for every 30 minute paid video session through a20% video remote session commission.
The $15.95 fee is often in addition to a list of other imposed service fees, taxes and surcharges, including a transaction processing fee of up to $9.95 imposed every time money is added to a prepaid account.
It was uncovered in a report from Huffington Post obtained documents that Securus made $114.6M in revenue in 2014, with a profit margin of 51 percent.
“Securus has already seen major earnings growth in recent years. When the current management team took over in 2008, earnings were at $41.7 million. Since then, they’ve grown roughly $10 million each year between 2008 and 2013. Profits soared between 2013 and 2014, jumping from $87 million to $114.6 million in a single year.” — Huffington Post
Jefferson County had 123 paid video visitation sessions in July during its first month of operation according to documents obtained through an open records request. Through the first 24 months of its contract with Securus, it will only generate commissions if it nets 426 sessions.
“The big thing for us is safety and security of the facility,” said Jefferson County Sheriff’s Capt. Ron Arnhart. “Really the only thing that’s changed is that they’re looking at them on that screen rather than through glass.” — Jefferson County Sheriff’s Capt. Ron Arnhart, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Article
I requested a list of incident reports from the Jefferson County Jail involving an officer, staff member, and/or another inmate injury or combative while being transported for an face-to-face visit in the six months leading up to the video visitation switch.
Their response indicated there were no such incidents.
On November 10, 2014, the Jefferson County Council unanimously awarded Securus the contract for the video visitation system.
It was mentioned in the Post-Dispatch article that other area prison systems, including St. Louis City and County, were considering implementing similar video visitation units.