Digitally Connecting With Incarcerated Loved Ones
On October 12, 2017, Tiffany Burns visited her boyfriend Chrishon Brown at the Jefferson Parish correctional center as she had many times before. It was her departure that day which was very different and concerning. As she left, the guard informed her that this was to be her final face to face visit and handed her a pamphlet explaining the process of video visitation.
Video visitation is one proposed mechanism to simplify the system, but is a digital technology capable of replacing a human bond?
When Tiffany Burns received the pamphlet, Jefferson Parish correctional center, like six hundred other jails and prisons across the country, was adding secure video visits to their technology arsenal. Like 74% of those using video visit technology, Jefferson Parish eliminated face to face visits permanently.
What is video visitation?
Video visitation is a new technology being implemented in jails and prisons across the country. In some facilities, it is completely replacing face to face visits, and in others it’s being added as an additional visitation method. Instead of waiting in a lengthy security line and undergoing security procedures, video visitation lets you “FaceTime” your incarcerated loved one without the inconvenience. This service is free if you travel to the correction centers’ rooms that are designated for this purpose. If you are unable to make the trip for any reason including distance or physical health, you may video chat from home for a fee ranging from 20¢ to $1.50 per minute depending on the particular facilities regulations.
Although these fees seem nominal, many families of inmates cannot afford to post their loved one’s bond, let alone pay for video calls. Inmates additionally may be responsible for some fees.
Video visitation, which is most commonly supplied by the providers JPay and Secures, provides a number of benefits to the prison systems, including increased income, redistribution of man power, and the ability to connect with relatives that may not be able to visit due to various reasons.
At home video visitation allows the inmate to participate in special moments such as birthdays and holidays. The limitations of this technology include that family members must have access to the technology that allows this communication to be possible including:
- Internet (DSL, Cable, Fiber) Speed
- 256KB minimum upstream and downstream speed
- To test network speed, go to speedtest.net.
- Configurations Supported by Securus Online
- Windows (XP, 7, 8, 10) with Firefox or IE 9, 9, 10, or 11
- To optimize performance for IE 9, 10, and 11, add “securustech.net” to Compatibility view settings.
- Verify the latest Java software is installed — get it at www.java.com. Only one version is needed.
- If the camera doesn’t work, uninstall all Java versions, reboot your PC, and install the latest version of Java.
- Add https://securusvideovisitation.securustech.net to the exception list under the security tab in the Windows “Control Panel” under Java control panel.
- MacOS 10.9+ with Firefox or Safari
- Supported Smart Phones (running the Securus Video Visit application)
- Android 4.0+
- Apple iOS 8.0+
- Notes about video and sound
- Most built-in cameras on laptops, tablets, and smartphones provide sufficient picture quality.
- Use ear phones with a microphone for the best overall sound quality and minimum echo.
You could get an MacBook Pro from Apple for around $1,500 and this would provide the necessities, but it is prohibitively expensive.
Why the shift to video visitation?
Prison overcrowding and staffing shortages have plagued the country for years dating back to the California Prison Riot in 2009, in which an entire prison was burned to the ground.
More recently, the 2017 riot at Smyrna Delaware’s James T. Vaughn correctional facility which resulted in the death of Lt. Steven Floyd. No one would argue that our current judicial and corrections system are in a state of disarray verging on chaos. “We’re at a catastrophic level," claims Jeff Klopp, president of Delaware Correctional Officers Association. Correction officer shortages compounded with prison overcrowding, have created the perfect scenario for disaster. In 2017 the state of West Virginia declared a state of emergency and mobilized the national guard to prisons due to understaffing. While only being a small improvement, video visitation provides the ability for corrections officers and staff members to be in areas of the prisons where they are most needed instead of ushering prisoners back and forth to their cells and visitation centers. These serious problems in corrections have been one reason that the technology of video visitation has proven warranted and is thriving in the current society.
Another common problem in corrections facilities is the presence of contraband. Corrections agencies argue that by limiting face to face contact they will limit the potential exchange of contraband in jails and prisons alike.
Lastly, video visitation is a for-profit business. In California alone video visitation is a 1.3 billion dollar commercial industry with a large percentage of its fees cut back to the participating jail or prison system. In Knox County Tennessee, between march 2014 and December 2014 video visitation in its first nine months created a $20,000 profit for their facility. The hope would be that these funds would go back to hiring more correction officers, providing better resources for the inmates, and improving facilities.
What are the benefits?
Like other social media and technology, video visitation has the capacity to connect people separated by distance, disability, and other obstacles. Similar to staying connected to old classmates on instagram and facebook, video visitation allows those who may not be able to travel to the corrections facility the ability to remain connected to their loved one(s). Perhaps the demographic most positively affected by this change is the children. 59% of inmates in state prison have never seen their children in a prison visit. 45% of inmates in federal prison fall into the same category. Limitations of time such as visiting hours conflicting with school hours, the average distance for a child to travel to see their incarcerated parent being one hundred miles, and the anxiety of security are all factors that prevent children from visiting their parents. 1.7 million children in the United States have at least one parent that is incarcerated. One-fourth of all African American children born after 1990, have had at least one parent incarcerated.
“Children may benefit from this video visitation if it increases the opportunity for them to see their parents,” claims Susan D. Phillips, the author of a publication on the Sentencing Project.
Not only is parent child contact important for the children, it has also been proven to be important to the offender as well.
“Visits from the family… reduced subsequent recidivism conjecturing that criminogenic behavior may be neutralized through social bonds, familial social supporters, and resources.”
What are the downsides?
Although virtual visits have opened the door of communication for those unable to make the trips to see their incarcerated loved ones, it also has a downside.
Opponents to virtual visits worry that as has happened in the majority of the institutions that have instituted this technology, face to face contact will soon be a thing of the past and prisoners will no longer have the ability to touch or sit across from their family member or friend. Imagine being separated from society and not being able to interact with the most important people in your life. Norris Henderson, a previous inmate who served for murder in Louisiana and is now the founder and executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender which is a not-for-profit group that advocates for inmates’ rights argues, “ We should be moving toward more human contact and people connecting with other people, not less. When you move away from that, its very easy to dehumanize.”
The primary goal of incarceration is rehabilitation. Contact with the positive support systems outside of jail or prison walls is an important piece of rehabilitation. Can a video monitor replace human contact? Or should it solely be used as a last resort for those who are unable to visit in person?
Kevin Wright, a professor at Arizona State, who studies correctional policy, commented , “A 2011 Minnesota Department of Corrections report found that in-person visitation greatly decreased the risk of recidivism” : as allowing face to face visits are decreasing the risk of criminals reoffending, why are we taking it away?
Will video visitation prove to have the same benefit to the inmate? Will the benefit in income to the corrections facility warrant the disadvantages? The corrections system is broken; yet, where should the burden of reparation begin?