When jails replace in-person visits with video, what happens when the technology fails?

As more jails ban face-to-face visits in favor of paid video chats, a growing number of people in jail are being cut off from their families when the technology breaks down.

by Sarah Watson, June 18, 2019

Jails are increasingly replacing in person visits with video calls. This high-tech fad goes against the recommendations of the American Correctional Association, the American Bar Association, and even the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections. These jails ignore the many problems we’ve documented, such as high costs for families, poor quality of the systems and the loss of human contact. But there’s another liability that jails now have to consider: What happens when their shiny new technology fails?

Their vendors — who provide the systems for free in exchange for charging high rates to the families — will say that their technology is perfect. As every person who owns a computer knows, however, technology is not flawless, and these systems do fail — sometimes keeping people in jail from contacting their families for weeks at a time:

We surveyed recent news stories about video systems breaking in jails that had chosen to replace traditional in-person visits with the technology.
County State Time Down Year Details Source
Shelby County Jail (Memphis) Tennessee 2 weeks 2019 The vendor (GTL) cut a fiber optic cable Source
Virginia Beach Correctional Center Virginia 3 months 2018 Jail typically averages 4,000 visits a month Source1 Source2
Williams County Correctional Center North Dakota 2 months 2017 System updates originally brought the system down, then it was discovered the upgrade was incompatible with the old equipment Source
Milwaukee County Jail Wisconsin At least one month 2013-2014 Visual went down leaving only audio Source
Boone County Jail Arkansas “months” 2018 Either a lightning strike or a software glitch brought the system down, administrators were not sure which was the cause. Source
Volusia County Branch Jail Florida One month 2017 Lightning struck an integral part of the visitation system. It took multiple technicians to conclude the entire system needed to be replaced. Source
Pontotoc County Justice Center Oklahoma Three weeks 2017 Visitation went down due to a “computer issue.” Source
Madison County Detention Center (Huntsville) Alabama >2 weeks 2017 Planned system updates meant visits were suspended. Source
Montgomery County Detention Facility Alabama About a week 2018 “Technical Issues” disrupted visitation as the jail waited for a replacement machine. Source
Olmsted County Adult Detention Center (Rochester) Minnesota 1 day 2018 The visitation system crashed, leaving visitors unable to schedule a visit or see their loved ones. The sheriff also confirmed the system sometimes goes down due to weather conditions as well. Source
Ada County Jail Idaho 2019 Ada County Jail experiences consistent technical issues. One visitor to Ada County Jail recalled, “It didn’t work half the time. You’d have to call to see if [the system] was down.” Source
Mecklenburg County Jail (Charlotte) North Carolina 2017 Frequent problems and system outages caused prisoners to miss their visits. “The video chat would go in and out. Sometimes half the screen would be cut off, and sometimes they wouldn’t work at all,” a former prisoner remembered. “You wouldn’t even get your visitation; you would have to wait until the next week, because even though the system was down, they would not make up the visitation you missed.” Source

The good news is that counties are starting to take notice of the downsides to video calling. Most recently, the sheriff of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (see table above) fulfilled a 2018 campaign promise to reinstate in-person visits, on the grounds that video should be used in addition to in person visits, not as a substitute.

“Allowing our residents to stay connected to family and loved ones through in-person visits improves public safety,” Sheriff McFadden explained. “This simple step alone has been shown to significantly lower the chances that a person will commit another crime after they get out. It also reduces the chance a person will commit an infraction inside the jail which could adversely impact their release. In addition, it improves mental health outcomes and strengthens family units and community ties.”

Mecklenburg County had the right idea. When this technology works, it should be considered a supplement to in-person visits, not a substitute; and when the technology fails, it’s useless. Instead of investing in flawed technology, jails should be looking for more ways to increase traditional methods of family contact.

Sarah Watson was a Prison Policy Initiative consultant. (Other articles | Contact)

One response:

  1. ABIM WESSEY says:

    for some i believe this is good, the elderly who wish to visit but the trip is to much for them.

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