Phones archives

In our letter to the Florida Department of Corrections, we explain why cutting visiting hours is bad policy and an inhumane practice.

by Lucius Couloute, May 31, 2018

comment letter

Florida’s Department of Corrections recently proposed new policies that would allow correctional facilities in the state to reduce their visitation hours by half, limiting opportunities for families to see their incarcerated loved ones in person. You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who actually believe reducing prison visits is a good idea, but the DOC has cited issues with contraband and staff costs as the impetus for the proposed changes.

Senior Policy Analyst Jorge Renaud and I wrote a comment letter opposing the proposed changes, citing established research that shows how reducing visitation is bad correctional policy. Moreover, we argued, it’s simply cruel:

Ensuring that incarcerated people maintain ample connection to the outside world is humane, cost-effective, and would result in less dangerous correctional facilities – to the benefit of everyone.

The plan to reduce these visits in favor of for-profit video chatting will undoubtedly force the families of incarcerated people to visit stale, flatscreen kiosks inside of correctional facilities, or to pay high fees when video chatting from home (a service that is usually free). Both options trivialize the importance of family relationships during periods of incarceration.

Reducing the opportunities incarcerated people have to see their families would be an unfortunate development in Florida’s justice system, which is already being criticized for cutting vital rehabilitative programs this year.

If Florida would like to reduce the need for visitation (because of costs or contraband), reducing the overall prison population would be a good start.

Update: check out journalist Ben Conarck’s twitter thread for coverage of a public hearing on visitation in Florida.


For nearly a year, the FCC knew about Securus’s cellphone tracking and turned a blind eye.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 11, 2018

Abuse of power in the nation’s prison and jails is nothing new, but now correctional staff can target any person in the U.S. – as long as that person has a cell phone. Last night, The New York Times reported that Securus allows facility staff to track any cell phone in the country.

Securus has contracts with hundreds of correctional and law enforcement agencies across the country, meaning that staffers at any of these agencies can track you on a whim. Shouldn’t they at least have a warrant or affidavit if they want to track your cell phone? Absolutely – but Securus isn’t checking. What if you never even talked to anyone in any correctional facility? Securus doesn’t check on that, either.

As the Times reports, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a letter to the FCC asking them to investigate, as well as letters to phone companies like Verizon and AT&T, who provide the tracking data to Securus.

The thing is: the FCC already knew about this. When Securus was up for sale last year, Lee Petro, representing the Wright Petitioners, pointed to this very practice as a reason for the FCC to block the sale. But the FCC turned a blind eye.

Thanks to Senator Wyden’s letters, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile are starting to ask their own questions. But it’s a sad day when the FCC has to rely on telecom giants to carry out its mandate.


Senators introduced S 2520 in bipartisan effort to put FCC back on track in regulating the cost of calling home from prison or jail.

by Aleks Kajstura, March 12, 2018

In bipartisan effort, Senators Duckworth (D-IL), Portman (R-OH), Booker (D-NJ) and Schatz (D-HI) recently introduced a bill (S.2520) to smooth the road for prison phone and video call regulation.

The bill clarifies that the FCC is required to ensure fair cost to customers, rather than only protecting phone company profits. The bill also clarifies that the FCC’s authority to regulate prison and jail phone calls includes all types of calling technology; this is particularly timely as many of the companies are pushing video calling to circumvent phone call regulation (and monetize visitation).

While a lot of this may seem like common sense, recent phone company litigation makes these clarifications necessary.

For more info, check out the Senators’ fact sheet.


New policy changes and legislative efforts designed to address correctional visitation policies are helping to chip away at the inhuman treatment of incarcerated people across the United States.

by Lucius Couloute, March 5, 2018

2017 was an important year for the movement to protect in-person visits in correctional facilities. Media outlets, grassroots organizations, and policymakers across the country spoke out and created real change that will positively impact the lives of incarcerated people and their families for years to come. And although there is much work still to be done, it appears that 2018 is already off to a strong start with new legislation introduced in New Jersey and policy changes in California.

  • New Jersey Assembly Bill 1025, introduced by Representatives Gordon Johnson and Elizabeth Maher Smith, would guarantee in-person family visits for incarcerated individuals, cap video costs at 11 cents a minute, and ban fees on professional video visits from lawyers and clergy. The bill will soon be heard in the legislature’s law and public safety committees.
  • Over in California, the Board of State and Community Corrections, an independent agency charged with ensuring correctional facility standards, recently approved revisions to its regulations of California juvenile facilities including that they “may provide access to technology as an alternative, but not as a replacement, to in-person visitation.” According to a press release, the BSCC will makes its final edits and the public will have a final opportunity to comment before the regulations become final.

If approved, the new policies in New Jersey and California would chip away at the inhumane treatment of both adults and youths held in correctional facilities. The Prison Policy Initiative supports these efforts and encourages lawmakers in other states to implement similar policies in order to protect incarcerated people from the exploitative nature of the video calling industry.


A new report highlights how the replacement of in-person visits with video calling makes jails less safe, but more profitable for sheriffs.

by Lucius Couloute, January 30, 2018

In April 2014 the sheriff’s office in Knox County, Tennessee banned in-person visits at its jail facilities and entered into a contract with Securus Technologies, forcing incarcerated people to interact with their loved ones through video screens alone. The sheriff’s office cited concerns about contraband, safety, and efficiency to justify the switch from in-person visits to video chats, but failed to illustrate how a new video calling system would provide the magic bullet.

In a new report from Face To Face Knox, a grassroots coalition of citizens in Knox County seeking humane treatment for incarcerated individuals, data from an open records request shows that the replacement of family visits with video calls has resulted in more violence, no drop in the rate of reported contraband, and higher levels of disciplinary infractions, putting more demand on staff.

assaults.staff assaults.contraband.disciplinary infractions.

Scroll to the right to see the impact of eliminating in-person visits on assaults, contraband cases, and disciplinary infractions over time. Data compiled by Face To Face Knox through a public records request.

The video-only “visitation” system did exactly the opposite of what the sheriff’s office intended – except for turning a profit. At a cost of $6 a visit, the sheriff’s office has generated nearly $70,000 from the 50% commissions it makes on the backs of people attempting to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones.

As the report explains, “The results are clear: The ban on in-person visits makes the jail more dangerous, does nothing to stop the flow of contraband, and strips money from the pockets of families. It’s time to end the ban and give visitors the option to see their friends and loved ones face to face.”


Virtual jail "visits" are quietly sweeping the country. Fortunately, a surge of hard-hitting journalism is pushing back, illuminating the exploitative practice of eliminating family visits in favor of video calls.

by Lucius Couloute, December 14, 2017

Virtual jail “visits” are quietly sweeping the country. Fortunately, a surge of hard-hitting journalism is pushing back, illuminating the exploitative practice of eliminating family visits in favor of video calls. In two new pieces from The Guardian and Colorado Public Radio, the technological glitches, emotional toll, and human rights violations stemming from an expanding jail video calling industry take center stage.
The end of American prison visits

In Shannon Sims’ deep dive into the video calling industry for The Guardian, she investigates the switch from in-person family visits to expensive video calls in one jail outside of downtown New Orleans:

The guards tell me they think the new system will be an improvement – “it’s better because you can do a video visit from home now” – but since it is so new, they can’t say for sure.

They suggest I check out the new “Video Visitation Center”, located about a 10 minute drive down the freeway. For those without access to a smartphone or a computer, the new visitation center is their only option.

There, an old elementary school building has been converted into the center. Inside, three guards are gathered and laughing around a cellphone behind a glass wall, but outside the parking lot is empty. No one is visiting.

As we’ve detailed before, it’s unlikely that people will actually enjoy driving to a jail or offsite terminal just to visit with a computer screen – the entire experience is dehumanizing. But video calling from home – at $12.99 per call – wasn’t much better for Tiffany Burns, who Sims visited as she was attempting to receive a home video call from her boyfriend Chrishon Brown:

“OK, so he is supposed to call in eight minutes I guess,” she says, staring at her phone, which blinks 6.52pm.

This is her third attempt to video chat with Brown. The first time, she did not know she needed to schedule the call far ahead of time, and the second time, all the slots were filled for the days she was off work. Now, with her slot scheduled and her earphones in, she’s wondering if it will all work out.

Finally, she sees a call coming through.

Her face lights up and then slowly fades as she realizes Brown can’t hear her. She fiddles with her headphones, waves, tries gesturing to him, but ultimately, he never can hear her voice. The two end up simply giggling at the screen image of each other for the remainder of the time.

Later, I speak with Brown by phone and he explains that he believes he was only the third inmate to try to use the video program at the Jefferson Parish jail, and that the other two also said it didn’t work properly.

“We had to pay money for something that didn’t work,” he complains. “I couldn’t even hear what she was saying, and I couldn’t really see her.”

A thousand miles away in Denver, Colorado, Michael Sakas of Colorado Public Radio explores the emotional toll that eliminating in-person visits has taken on one mother’s incarcerated son, who has attempted suicide multiple times while behind bars:

“He is having an emotional breakdown right now because he can’t wait to give me a hug . . . So he wants to plead guilty because he wants to go to prison so that he can give me a hug again.”

Since 2005, the only way to speak to an incarcerated person in Denver’s jails has been through video chats. But a new movement, sparked by grassroots leaders and a report from Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, is putting pressure on the local sheriff’s office, which is now considering a reinstatement of in-person visits. The downtown detention center was built without visitation space, which would make reinstating visits expensive, according to jail division chief Elias Diggins. But the city is moving forward with a $1.4 million dollar contract to update the video calling system.

“Can you imagine being in a cell all by yourself, and only being out for a couple of hours everyday? I mean, I couldn’t handle it. Could you?”

The Guardian‘s article raises another important point that we haven’t raised in our own work or seen raised elsewhere: does international human rights law require jails to allow in-person visitation?

“Internationally, multiple legal instruments indicate that it [does]. UN rules call for the allowance of visitors, while the European Prison Rules emphasize that while all forms of visitation may be monitored, maximum contact is the underlying goal: ‘Prisoners shall be allowed to communicate as often as possible by letter, telephone or other forms of communication with their families, other persons and representatives of outside organisations and to receive visits from these persons.'”

This reminder about international human rights law adds an international layer to the clear national consensus — including agreement from editorial boards, public citizens, professional organizations, and policymakers — that erecting unnecessary barriers between incarcerated people and the outside world is bad policy. It’s time for American sheriffs to join the rest of the country, and the world.


We've had to make tough compromises in our work to protect in-person jail visits. We share some of the considerations we confronted in the hopes of supporting other advocates.

by Bernadette Rabuy, November 20, 2017

Policy work sometimes requires tough choices. For example, our campaign to protect in-person family visits in jails has won some major victories at the price of accepting legislation that does not apply to counties that had already replaced in-person visits with inadequate video calls.

In both Texas and California, state bills were successful in protecting in-person visits in a majority of counties but exempted some counties from restoring in-person visits. (This practice of creating an exemption in a law is sometimes called a “grandfather clause” or “grandfathering.”) Our coalitions struggled with these compromises, and I want to share some of the considerations we confronted in the hopes that it might guide similar decisions:

  1. What is the main goal of the legislation?

    At the Prison Policy Initiative, we often work in coalitions. One challenge of working in coalitions is that it can be hard to make fast-paced decisions. Planning ahead, creating a structure, and agreeing in advance on the purpose of the legislation can make all the difference. In California, we used a few approaches. We had regular conversations among the coalition members about the purpose of the legislation. This was almost like creating a ranking of the most important purposes of the legislation to the least important purposes. We also elected a smaller group of the coalition that was entrusted to make fast-paced decisions if getting in touch with all of the coalition members didn’t work out. Another approach, which is similar to what we did in Texas, is to alert coalition members to be on stand-by for a last-minute conference call as soon as there is reason to believe that a fast-paced decision is likely.

  2. Is the compromise the right size?

    Passing legislation often requires compromise, so the first question, after whether compromise is necessary, is whether it’s the right one. For example, we’ve found it helpful to focus on the extent of that compromise. We’ve thought about whether the compromise is limited to what’s necessary or, on the other hand, takes the teeth out of a bill. For example, for legislation on video calls, we ask ourselves, if a grandfather clause is necessary, how many counties exactly does it make sense to include? Unfortunately, the California bill has an expansive grandfather clause. It not only exempts jails that were built without physical space designated for in-person visitation, but it also exempts jails that are in early stages of construction.

  3. Can we effectively address, at the local level, what the state legislative compromise left out?

    When we considered the expansive California exemption, we thought about the feasibility of follow-up campaigns in the counties that would be exempted. In other words, we asked, “Can we fix it later?”

    When working with a coalition, it can be helpful to poll members’ capacity to do follow-up work. For example, is the campaign a part of that coalition member’s one-year plan or five-year plan? If most of the coalition is located in a couple of cities, would it be practical to launch a campaign outside of those cities? How difficult would it be to track local policymaking? (For example, are county government meeting agendas posted online regularly and in advance?)

  4. How likely is future reform? Is there opposition and how strong or widespread is it?

    We’ve also assessed the political climate. For example, when we were working to protect in-person visits in Texas, it didn’t seem like the opposition would waver if we decided to reject the offered compromise and waited for the next legislative session. In particular, Bexar County was resistant to the bill we were working on because it was building a visitation center in order to replace in-person visits with video calls. Bexar County wasn’t showing any sign of rethinking its plans, and, as home to San Antonio, it seemed to be an influential county.

    On the other hand, the initial California bill that would have protected in-person visits in California jails had a long list of supporters and just one opponent (the California State Sheriffs Association). While the Legislature approved the bill with bipartisan support, Governor Brown ultimately vetoed the bill. With just one opponent (and one who conceded that “in-person visitation can bring positive outcomes”), we knew we had momentum to keep the campaign going. We also thought we might have more success at a later moment that wasn’t so close to an election heavy with criminal justice reforms. Ultimately, we were right; we were successful with a second bill.

  5. Are there alternative strategies for reform?

    We’ve weighed the potential harm of an exemption with the likelihood that we could adopt alternative strategies for reform. For example, in Texas, some of the counties that had already banned in-person visits were still subject to the law’s requirement to provide in-person visits because they had not in fact incurred “significant expense” to adopt video calls. We knew from our research that it was common for predatory video call companies to install video call systems in jails at no cost to the county. Upon closer investigation, Woods and Hays hadn’t paid for their video systems so they were required to provide in-person jail visits. In Travis County, advocates like Grassroots Leadership, which is based in the County, organized and successfully persuaded the Travis County Sheriff to bring back in-person visits even though he received an exemption.

    In California, the coalition that sponsored the initial bill responded to the Governor’s veto by partnering with supportive legislators and family members of incarcerated people. The Senate and Assembly Budget Subcommittee 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary along with the Senate Public Safety Committee hosted an informational hearing on video calls at the State Capitol where members of our coalition testified to raise further awareness of the harm of banning in-person visits. We also organized family members of incarcerated people to share the positive impact that in-person visitation has had on them through public comment or written testimony. As one man who has visited his father in various California jails put it, “Human beings need in person visits. Our minds need it and our hearts need it.” The support of legislators and the public helped us keep our campaign in the spotlight until we were able to protect in-person visits through a second bill.

Legislative compromises are never easy questions. Without a doubt, legislative compromises require assessing factors that vary from one place to another. But our experience working to protect in-person visits in certain states has reminded us that anticipating opposition and brainstorming potential responses in advance can make the decision easier.


New research shows jail phone companies contributing significant sums to Sheriff's campaigns, in one case funding a quarter of Sheriff's campaign spending.

by Aleks Kajstura, October 12, 2017

While we talk a lot about counties getting kick-backs from phone companies in return for granting monopoly contracts, we now have new research about a far more direct prison and jail phone company effort to sway sheriffs: campaign contributions.

As we highlighted two years ago, Securus was donating $10,000 a year to the Sacramento County sheriff, even though it did not have a contract with the county. We recently dug around a little deeper and discovered that Sacramento’s experience is not unique.

We found that GTL and Securus alone have donated over $70,000 to Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern’s campaigns in just 4 years (2010-2013):

Year GTL’s
Contributions
Securus’
Contributions
2010 $2,000 $10,000
2011 $400 $10,000
2012 $12,000 $10,000
2013 $15,000 $10,075

As we can see, prison and jail phone companies have been fueling Ahern’s campaign for years. And in 2012, their contributions accounted for nearly 25% of Ahern’s campaign expenditures.

Notably Sheriff Ahern runs the 14th largest jail system in the country; just one of his facilities is larger than the entire state prison system of 8 states. He used his substantial influence to organize and lead jail administrators to fight against jail phone regulation while also raking in at least $1.5 million in kickbacks from the phone companies.

The phone companies are making contributions in other counties too:

Jail phone company Contribution County Year
CenturyLink $1,000 Clark County, NV 2014
Securus $1,675 Contra Costa County, CA 2013
Securus $500 Duval County, FL 2014
Telmate $500 San Francisco County, CA 2015

These contributions may seem small compared to those in Alameda and Sacramento, but the cost of running for sheriff varies, so these contributions might be enough to sway their respective elections. (And of course, phone companies buy other county officials as well.)

Finally, these findings represent just a handful of the country’s 3,163 jails. Much more work needs to be done to uncover the full impact of jail phone companies on sheriff races, and what that means for families trying to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones.

 

 

Special thanks to Sasha Feldstein and Sari Kisilevsky, our Young Professionals Network volunteers, for their hours spent sifting through the data, as well as Alex Clark and Elliot Oberholtzer for their additional research and compilation.


Video conferencing enthusiasts agree: video calls are not the same as in-person visits

by Bernadette Rabuy, September 26, 2017

The public, the media, and policymakers agree: replacing in-person jail visits with video calls is foolish and needlessly cruel. In an article last week, VC Daily, which describes itself as a niche community of video conferencing enthusiasts, agreed: “Video conferencing technology has come a long way in the past decade, but even in its most experimental current forms it cannot replicate time spent with family and friends in the flesh…”

VC Daily was quick to acknowledge that it may seem like an unlikely supporter of in-person visits, and it explained why video calls are a poor replacement of in-person visits:

As much as we consider ourselves here at VC Daily to be cheerleaders for the technology and use of video conferencing, the bottom line is that video conferencing just isn’t the same as in-person communication. At least, not right now. It is a great substitute when distance and circumstance make sharing the same space impossible, impractical, or just plain expensive.

VC Daily understands that in-person jail visits are far from impossible, impractical, or expensive:

  • In-person jail visits are not impossible. Although this is quickly changing, most jails still provide in-person visits.
  • In-person jail visits are not impractical. In-person visits, not video calls, are the norm in state and federal prisons. Jails can and should provide in-person visits too, especially since families are generally able to visit incarcerated loved ones more easily when they are close by in a local jail than many miles away in a prison.
  • In-person jail visits are not expensive. Traditionally, jails did not charge families to visit their incarcerated loved ones. Charging families to see their incarcerated loved ones is one of the negative consequences of the growth of the video call industry and a practice discouraged by the American Correctional Association. Jails do expend resources to provide in-person visitation, but in-person visitation can lead to a reduction in recidivism so it’s a worthy investment.

VC Daily went on to admit that, even as a community of video conferencing enthusiasts, it believes that denying incarcerated people human contact infringes on basic human needs:

However, as an L.A. Times editorial noted just a few months ago, once you start employing video conferencing to replace human physical interaction, you run the risk of dangerously undermining a person’s basic human needs… We usually end these posts dreaming of a hypothetical future in which video conferencing is the good guy, the tech that can make great things possible. But this certainly takes the fun out of our hypothetical.

VC Daily’s critique gets at the heart of what is so perverse about the way that jails use video calls: it’s a rare example of a technology being used to separate, rather than connect, people. This harmful practice is in part why VC Daily concludes, “[v]ideo conferencing is an addition to our lives, not the venue for them.”


After the Maine DOC solicited comments on the proposed changes to its visitation policies, we submitted a letter detailing why the elimination of in-person visits would hurt families.

by Lucius Couloute, September 7, 2017

comment letter

Due, in part, to our work on the video calling industry, most policymakers now recognize that in-person jail visits should not be replaced with glitchy, expensive, and impersonal video calls.

In states like Texas, California, and Illinois legislators have made it a point to ensure that incarcerated people get to see their loved ones face-to-face by prohibiting correctional facilities from eliminating in-person visits.

In Maine, however, the Department of Corrections (who holds the authority to set jail standards) is considering a move that would put them at odds with the national consensus: eliminating the requirement that Maine jails provide in-person contact visits, allowing them to instead provide video-only “visits”.

The DOC solicited comments on the proposed changes, so we submitted a letter detailing why the policy change would hurt families. You can read the full text of the letter, above. It concludes:

The DOC, on its own website, states that its mission is to “reduce the likelihood that juvenile and adult offenders will re-offend by providing practices, programs, and services which are evidence based.” Replacing in-person visits with video calling flies in the face of established evidence and punishes the families of incarcerated people who only wish to support their incarcerated loved ones. On behalf of incarcerated people looking to maintain their support systems, and their families, we urge the DOC to maintain in-person visits.

At a recent hearing, over 20 people testified against the proposed changes. We now await the final decision.




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