Best practices for jail video calling procurement
by Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner
Last updated February 4, 2020
Video calling technology can be a helpful supplement to in-person jail visits, but it is critical to ensure that the vendor does not rake in excessive profits at the expense of consumers, most of whom are families in poverty. Negotiating a video calling contract that protects consumers can be tricky. Proper planning and goal-setting are absolutely necessary to guarantee a positive outcome.
Below, we list best practices for a correctional agency writing an RFP for video calling services. Our suggestions assume that the agency is expecting people behind bars and their loved ones to shoulder the cost of remote video calls. However, these recommendations come with a caveat: The fairest approach for a prison or jail is to simply make all video calls free (otherwise, personal wealth determines which families can stay in touch and which ones cannot).
Agencies that want to make jail video calls free should probably model their RFPs off of the phone services RFP issued by San Francisco in 2019. For agencies that don’t wish to go that far, but do wish to hold their vendors accountable and ensure the fair treatment of customers, we’ve prepared this list of best practices.
- Be clear that you seek to use video as a supplement to, and never a replacement for, traditional in-person visitation. The Department of Justice, the American Correctional Association, and the states of Massachusetts, California, Texas, and Illinois agree that preserving in-person visits is a correctional best practice. Some vendors may want you to replace traditional in-person visits with a combination of free facility-based video calls (where families travel to the jail to sit at a video terminal) and paid remote video calls, with the aim of pushing families to the paid video calls from home. A better solution is to use paid remote video calls as a supplement to in-person visits — one which will be particularly attractive to loved ones who live far away or wish to communicate beyond normal visiting hours.
- Require a good refund policy for failed or unsuccessful visits. Far too often, video calls are unsuccessful because the computers never connect, the audio doesn’t work, or the video is inexplicably blurry. It is critical that the vendor have an economic incentive to minimize these problems. The vendor should be required to describe their process for giving refunds and give some comparative data about their consumer reputation at the Better Business Bureau or elsewhere on quality and refund issues. The vendor should also describe whether correctional staff who witness technology failures will be allowed to process (or otherwise have a say in) refunds.
- Try to avoid a bundled contract that reduces your current and future choice. Bundling together a lot of unrelated services — such as phone calls, video calling, electronic law libraries, and “inmate banking” — into one contract sounds convenient, but it makes it possible for the provider to shift profits from one service to another, thereby hiding the real costs of each service from you. The best way to meet your multiple needs is with multiple RFPs that each solicit the best solution. If you issue a large bundled RFP, you will be ignoring companies with innovative products that meet part of your need and you will make it more difficult for the facility to change vendors in the future, because the facility must now change their phone, email, commissary, and banking systems all at the same time.
- Require a realistic analysis and contingency plan for system failures. No technology is foolproof, and experience has shown that correctional video calling technology is uncommonly susceptible to failure. Expecting and planning for failures should be a part of any contract. Bidders should be required to describe their experience with system failures, including the specifics of their longest outage in terms of length and lessons learned.
- Require reasonable restrictions on how long recordings of video calls may be retained; restrict the vendor's use of any data collected from video calls; and ensure that the provider complies with the Children's Online Privacy Act. In particular, some vendors appear to be building extensive facial recognition databases of incarcerated people and their loved ones, which could be sold to third parties. One strategy for the RFP would be to decide on some specific guidelines and make them requirements for the contract. (Ideally, the county would restrict this practice entirely.) Alternatively, the county could require bidders to put a dollar value on this data and explicitly pay for a license to use and retain it. Another, albeit weaker, option is to require bidders to disclose their intentions by asking whether they have any security products for sale that will use data from the county’s video calling system and whether the vendor would commit to destroying all data derived from video calls at or before the end of the contract.
Separately, counties should require providers to commit to not using video data from the contracting facility in any way that violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, and to specifically indemnify the county against any claims under the Act. (The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits collecting and sharing photographs, video or audio recordings of children without the verifiable consent of parents.)1
- Require support for all common consumer platforms. Technology solutions will not feel like solutions unless they are easy for the typical consumer to use. For example, some vendors have, in the past, made their products incompatible with mobile phones. (This creates barriers for consumers who have mobile phones but not computers.) The county should ask about the minimum software requirements for consumers, including whether the services work on Android and Apple smartphones.
- Encourage systems that allow per-minute billing. Some providers require video calls to be scheduled and billed in blocks of 20 or 30 minutes. The providers like this because it maximizes revenue, but it also drives up the cost for families by requiring them to purchase more time than they may want or need for a given conversation. For example, it should be possible for a daughter to say goodnight to her incarcerated father or for a husband to ask his wife if she received her commissary money via video call, without the call being financially burdensome.
- Encourage systems that allow video calls without an appointment and/or that allow incoming calling. Offering reservations to guarantee machine availability can be helpful, but requiring that all calls be scheduled in advance is unrealistic to most modern families. The most innovative systems allow family members to signal their availability for a call or to call into the system.
- Seek systems that acknowledge the importance of eye contact to human communication. Eye contact is crucial to establishing and maintaining connections, building trusting and supportive relationships, and allowing clear communication. The vendors should explain how they incorporate the importance of eye contact into the design of their products and how often they update their technology and equipment.
We also have best practices guides for writing phones and electronic tablet RFPs.