Inside The Fight To Protect Face-To-Face Visitation For Prisoners

When you’re behind bars, “there’s something psychologically uplifting about knowing someone is coming to visit you,” Jorge Renaud explained.

Renaud is an organizer with Grassroots Leadership and Texas Advocates for Justice who spoke with me by phone from Austin, Texas. He told me that unless you’ve been incarcerated, you can’t understand the emotional impact of a visit from a friend or loved one. His voice vibrated with emotion as he recalled those desperately needed visits, his tone expressing more than words could say.

This crucial connection with the outside world is endangered around the country, as more and more prisons and jails install video visitation systems. While the technology theoretically offers a new way to connect with prisoners — for those who can afford it — jails across the nation are also doing away with in-person visitation entirely, in favor of relying exclusively on these video visitations.

Correctional institutions began installing the technology about a decade ago, but alarmed prison reform activists only recently succeeded in getting the attention of lawmakers and the media.

Renaud spent time in a Texas prison and, more recently, served a few months in jail for a DUI conviction, so he experienced both forms of visitation firsthand. “It’s just not the same when you have it on the camera,” he says.

While jail officials sometimes cite safety concerns, Renaud’s research suggests video visitation has less to do with safer jails and more to do with profits for prison technology corporations like Securus.

Many studies suggest visitation reduces the stress of incarceration and causes a measurable reduction in recidivism. A 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that prisoners who received even one visit from a loved one were 13% less likely to commit new crimes and 25% less likely to violate the terms of their parole. Activists and prisoners alike are convinced that video visitation, which reduces human connection to a tiny screen, puts these benefits at risk.

Fortunately, in Austin and elsewhere in the country, activists for prisoners’ rights are beginning to fight back — and starting to win.

Poorly Implemented And Priced Out Of Reach

“Increasing the options that incarcerated people and their families have to stay in touch benefits incarcerated individuals, their families, and society at large,” noted Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner, researchers from the Prison Policy Initiative, who released “Screening Out Family Time,” a nationwide study of video visitation, in 2015. The authors were first alerted to video visitation in 2008, when they found an essay written by Clair Beazer, at the time incarcerated in Colorado, about its benefits and issues.

By 2014, the report noted, the technology had reached “critical mass,” with “more than 500 facilities in 43 states and the District of Columbia . . . experimenting with video visitation.” Rabuy and Wagner, as well as Beazer, have noted that the technology can have real benefits — because facilities are often far from home, video visitation allows a connection that’s more personal than a phone call, but without the travel expenses.

The problem is that in some cases, video visitation is being used not as an alternative option to in-person visits, but as a replacement. While other corporations, like Jpay and Global Tel Link, offer video visitation, Securus requires the elimination of in-person visits in its contracts with facilities, according to Prison Policy Initiative.

As Beazer noted in her essay [sic]:

“ . . . if video visits are a replacement of and for the current visitation their implementation would be a painful unwelcome change that would be impersonal and dehumanizing. Their effect could result in demoralization and that his change could adversely affect recidivism.”

There’s also the issue of financial burden. Rates vary from place to place, but calls often cost about $20 for a 20-minute video chat, though some cost more. Using terminals at the jails, conversely, is usually free. While the FCC began regulating the cost of phone calls in October 2015, it hasn’t yet decided to do the same for video visitation.

These costs can put video visitation out of reach for many of those who need the service most. “[T]he families of incarcerated people are some of the poorest families in the country,” noted Rabuy and Wagner. “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.”

On top of all of this, the technology is often unreliable and badly implemented in jails. For example, cameras can be poorly aimed and prisoners’ video terminals are ill-maintained and awkwardly placed in their cell blocks. “It’s not the quality of a Skype call, let’s just say that,” Renaud says.

That’s assuming the service functions at all. An April 5 report from Tech.Mic recounted the end of one problem-filled video visit:

“For the entire call, a glitch in the system caused [Ashika Renae Coleman]’s image to look like a tangle of window blinds. [Prisoner re-entry activist Lauren] Johnson wanted to talk to Coleman about her case, but through most of the call, she simply repeated, ‘Hello — can you hear me now?’ Johnson was charged $10 for the video visit, even after cutting it a few minutes short of the 20-minute maximum.”

“It’s all fuzzy and you can’t really see them,” Renaud recalls. He says video calls frequently fail and the company’s customer service refuses to refund the cost of dropped connections in most cases.

Together with director Matthew Gossage, Grassroots Leadership turned Renaud’s report into an upcoming short documentary, (In)securus Technology: An Assault on Prisoner Rights.

Profit, Not Safety, Motivates Elimination Of Face-to-Face Visits

Travis County Jail, like many other jails around the country, initially offered video visitation as an option. By 2013, however, even people traveling to the jail had to use video terminals. Prison Policy Initiative’s investigation found that 74% of jails banned in-person visits after adding video visitation.

Even before the advent of video visitation, Travis County, like most jails, had eliminated “contact” visits, where visitors and the incarcerated can actually touch. Instead, visits take place through a clear partition. But, according to Renaud, representatives of the Travis County Sheriffs claimed that “doing away with face-to-face visitation would result in a safer institution.”

Renaud filed open records requests which revealed that incidents of violence and contraband increased in Travis County Jail after the move to video-only visitation at Travis County Jails. He found a 54% increase in disciplinary incidents involving contraband, a dramatic increase in assaults on prison officials, and an increase in overall disciplinary infractions. There were an average of 940 infractions per month before the May 2013 elimination of in-person visitations, but by April 2014 that had climbed to a monthly average of 1,087.

“What happens is that the psychology in face-to-face visitation so enhances the mood of people incarcerated that taking that away will also result in increased violence on the blocks,” Renaud says.

“That’s why prisons don’t do away with [visitation],” he adds. Instead, prisons use the threat of withholding visiting privileges as a way to keep inmates in line.

If violence isn’t the issue, the real reason to eliminate in-person visitation is profit. Visitors are more likely to pay for a long-distance video chat than to travel to the jail when their only options are to use their personal computers or the free but poorly maintained systems at the facility. Under the terms of their contracts, jails get a substantial portion of those fees and can also cut back on the staff that guard visitation centers.

“They have pamphlets that say, ‘Do this from the comfort of your home! For $20 for 20 minutes, you can call and have your dog there and be by the fireplace,’” Renaud says.

His analysis of jails’ contracts with prison technology corporations revealed how much they stand to gain from limiting prisoners’ access to their loved ones:

“County jails are guaranteed a certain amount of money for the first year of operations — ranging from the $15 million Global Tel-Link guaranteed Los Angeles County, to the $3 million Securus would have guaranteed Dallas County had they signed a contract with Securus — to have access to those jails’ captive populations.The guarantee is in addition to the approximately 23% of gross revenues counties receive from all calls and video visits made by individuals incarcerated in their jails.”

Securus has similar contracts with at least 90 facilities elsewhere in Texas and nationwide.

Restoring ‘Meaningful Contact’ State-by-State

In 2015, during the last biennial session of the Texas legislature, state representative Eric Johnson responded to activism and lobbying by filing HB 549, requiring county jails to allow at least two in-person visits of 20 minutes each week. Former Grassroots Leadership organizer Kymberlie Quong Charles and prisoners’ loved ones mobilized to support the bill.

However, by the time it passed through both houses to reach the governor’s desk, an exception had been added to the law: 31 counties, including Travis, would be grandfathered into the law and allowed to continue their video-only policies because they’d already made substantial investments in the system by constructing video visitation facilities.

Although the new law would exempt counties that had invested money in video visitation, Securus had actually paid for much of the installation costs in Travis County. So Renaud and his allies mounted a campaign at the county commissioners’ court, which controls the budget for the jail. “There was a lot of pressure put on the sheriffs locally,” Renaud says.

Crucial support came from Sarah Eckhardt, a Travis County judge and, when the county sheriff stepped down, every candidate in the next election promised to restore face-to-face visits.

On April 19 at 9 a.m., visits resumed for the first time. To be eligible, a prisoner had to be in custody for over 60 days in a minimum or medium security block.

“I am gratified that, through collaboration with the Travis County Sheriffs Office, in-person visitation has been restored so that loved ones of the people in our custody are able to have meaningful contact,” wrote Eckhardt in a statement.

Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, or CIVIC, is one group fighting similar policies in California. According to research by Nation Inside, at least six counties in the state have eliminated in-person visits in one or more of their jails. Two counties have severely limited in-person visitation, while an additional three counties intend to build video-only visitors centers. More are expected to follow suit.

Senate Bill 1157*, sponsored by Senator Holly J. Mitchell with co-authors Senator Loni Hancock and Assemblymember Shirley Weber, would clarify state standards for correctional facilities of all kinds so that they require in-person visitation. At a hearing on May 2, the bill was placed in the “suspense file,” where the California legislature puts bills that could cause a significant fiscal impact if implemented, thanks to existing contracts and jails that have already converted to video visitation.

While Christina Mansfield, CIVIC’s co-founder and co-executive director, told me she remains hopeful that the bill will pass, she stressed that the incarcerated and their families face a nationwide battle against private prison corporations for their human rights. She’s especially worried about the long-term impacts of video visitation on children. “It’s pretty common sense that it could be traumatizing and disorienting for children to not see their loved one in person, and not understand that they are real.”

Our elected officials, she says, must value human connection over corporate profits: “I want to emphasize the impact that this is having on families and the power that states have to regulate this issue through legislation.”

Regardless of whether California eliminates video visitation, prisoners across the country will still have to contend with this expensive, buggy, and dehumanizing technology for some time to come. And, as long as jails and prisons are seen more as sources of profit than rehabilitation, activists from groups like Grassroots Leadership and CIVIC will have their hands full standing up for the human rights of the incarcerated.

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*Update: The California Senate approved SB 1157 on June 2.

Lead image: Vimeo/Grassroots Leadership