Voices that matter: Incarcerated people on video calling

by Lucius Couloute, August 9, 2017

Correctional facilities that implement video calling technology typically argue that they are providing a better way for families to stay in touch. But as our national research shows, the introduction of this technology almost always signals a roll back of in-person visits and a new way of extracting profits from captive consumers.

One of the many grassroots organizations organizing around the harms of the video “visitation” racket is the Durham Inside-Outside Alliance; their blog is a must-read for people working on this issue in other states. In particular, it highlights the voices of incarcerated people who are reshaping the debate around poorly functioning and expensive video calling technology.

Here’s what incarcerated people have to say:

“About this (video) visitation, I think it’s bogus because a lot of parents come to visit their kids and the only way they know that they are fine is through a real visit. Seeing and knowing that they’re fine. You can’t tell through a phone visit, that doesn’t give that fist bump, that ‘I love you’ smile, or that one moment where you gotta shed that tear and the person on the other side of the glass tells you, ‘Hey, don’t worry, it’s gonna be ok…’”

Another person goes on to say:

“All of my family and friends live 2-3 hours away! So the few that are able to come see me drive all that way to see me for 20 minutes! Could you imagine driving that far to sit in front of a video screen instead of actually seeing their loved one in person?!”

Going to jail can be a terrifying experience; it separates people from their homes, jobs, friends, family, and freedom. The risk of unnatural death skyrockets in jail, due in part to the shocking disconnection from ordinary life that an abrupt period of incarceration can cause. Keeping in contact with loved ones can be one of the very few ways in which incarcerated people make it through; and as these quotes suggest, replacing in-person visits with substandard video chatting just isn’t good enough.

“The jail claims that they’re not going to do away with our face-to-face visits, that they added the video visits to give us more time with our family, in other words it’s [supposed] to be a win-win for us. Damn shame! They got a lie for every question people throw at them. If it was all about us getting more visits with our family, then why not give us face to face visits all throughout the week instead of spending money on all this new equipment? […] Them guards get to go home […] We don’t…”

And as another individual put it:

“What is the purpose of video visitation? The Sheriff claims it’s only an alternative – not a replacement – to face-to-face visits. If that’s true, then it would be advantageous to those who live hundreds of miles away and out of state, provided they can utilize Skype or some other home computer video to implement such visits.

I believe most detainees’ families live in or near Durham. If these family members are relegated to coming to the jail, only to sit before a monitor downstairs to see and communicate with us through another monitor upstairs, that would be a travesty of justice, an unnecessary invasion of privacy on our visits, and a waste of tax dollars.

Instinct and history tells me that video visitation is not going to be an alternative form of visitation. Rather, due time, face-to-face visits will be phased out to give the Sheriff a captive audience to charge exorbitant fees for visits. Otherwise, why try to fix what’s not broken? For the most part, detainees in jail have not been convicted of any crime. Under our system of jurisprudence, we are supposed to be deemed innocent until we are proven guilty. But in reality, this jail treats us in opposite fashion with this Board’s seal of approval.”

The incarcerated people writing to the Durham Inside-Outside Alliance are right to be concerned that in-person visits will be eliminated after the installation of video terminals. While some jails add off-site video calling to supplement in-person visitation, the only reason that jails build on-site video calling booths is so they can then ban traditional in-person visits. Correctional staff might not see the problem with preventing incarcerated people from seeing their loved ones in person, but for those behind bars who can’t go home at night, it means everything to them.

So what about the jail’s argument that video calls give incarcerated people more time with their families? Existing evidence says the opposite is more likely to be true. A survey conducted by Travis County (TX) Sheriff’s Office after they changed to video-only “visitation”, found that 91% of visitors reported that they would prefer face-to-face visitation. In fact, our analysis found that “visits” decreased by 28% after the sheriff banned in-person visitation. The simple truth is that replacing in person visits with poorly functioning video calling systems makes it harder – not easier – for families to maintain relationships.

Incarcerated people want to be able to communicate with their loved ones in a calm and comfortable environment because it helps maintain connections that will eventually aid in the reentry process. Forcing them to speak with visitors using video terminals placed in public areas only inhibits successful reentry.

If policymakers are legitimately concerned about making the transition out of correctional facilities as smooth as possible, they must incorporate the visitation-related concerns of incarcerated people. Because sometimes, the best answers are staring right back at us (and hopefully not through grainy video screens).

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