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Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails (excerpt)

Reposted from Bernadette Rabuy + Peter Wagner, Prison Policy Initiative

January 2015

Please note:

  1. This is an excerpt of the full Screening Out Family Time report published by the Prison Policy Initiative in 2015. Read the original, complete report here.

  2. Family members’ names (denoted by an asterisk *) have been changed throughout the report.

  3. Bibliographic citations have been omitted from this repost, but are available in full in the original report.


Every Thursday, Lisa* logs on to her computer and spends $10 to chat for half an hour via video with her sister who is incarcerated in another state. Before the Federal Communications Commission capped the cost of interstate calls from prisons, these video chats were even cheaper than the telephone. Lisa’s experience is representative of the promise of video visitation.

Meanwhile, Mary* flies across the country to visit her brother who is being held in a Texas jail. She drives her rental car to the jail but rather than visit her brother in-person or through-the-glass, she is only allowed to speak with him for 20 minutes through a computer screen.

Elsewhere, Bernadette spends hours trying to schedule an offsite video visit with a person incarcerated in a Washington state prison. After four calls to JPay and one call to her credit card company, she is finally able to schedule a visit. Yet, when it is time for the visit, she waits for 30 minutes to no avail. The incarcerated person did not find out about the visit until the scheduled time had passed. The visit never happens.

How do video visitations work? While video visitation systems vary, the process typically works like this:

Figure 1. Most companies, including Securus, Telmate, and Renovo/Global Tel*Link, charge for a set amount of time and require pre-scheduled appointments.

Reviewing the promises and drawbacks of video visitation

"When they have that contact with the outside family they actually behave better here at the facility."

Increasing the options that incarcerated people and their families have to stay in touch benefits incarcerated individuals, their families, and society at large. Family contact is one of the surest ways to reduce the likelihood that an individual will re-offend after release, the technical term for which is “recidivism.” A rigorous study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that even a single visit reduced recidivism by 13% for new crimes and 25% for technical violations. More contact between incarcerated people and their loved ones — whether in-person, by phone, by correspondence, or via video visitation — is clearly better for individuals, better for society, and even better for the facilities. As one Indiana prison official told a major correctional news service: “When they (prisoners) have that contact with the outside family they actually behave better here at the facility.”

Without a doubt, video visitation has some benefits:

  • Most prisons and some jails are located far away from incarcerated people’s home communities and loved ones.

  • Prisons and jails sometimes have restrictive visitation hours and policies that can prevent working individuals, school-age children, the elderly, and people with disabilities from visiting.

  • It can be less disruptive for children to visit from a more familiar setting like home.

  • It may be easier for facilities to eliminate the need to move incarcerated people from their cells to central visitation rooms.

  • It is not possible to transmit contraband via computer screen.

But video visitation also has some serious drawbacks:

  • Visiting someone via a computer screen is not the same as visiting someone in-person. Onsite video visitation is even less intimate and personal than through-the-glass visits, which families already find less preferable to contact visits.

  • In jails, the implementation of video visitation often means the end of traditional, through-the-glass visitation in order to drive people to use paid, remote video visitation.

  • Video visitation can be expensive, and the families of incarcerated people are some of the poorest families in the country.

  • 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.

  • The technology is poorly designed and implemented. It is clear that video visitation industry leaders have not been listening to their customers and have not responded to consistent complaints about camera placement, the way that seating is bolted into the ground, the placement of video visitation terminals in pods of cells, etc.

  • Technological glitches can be even more challenging for lawyers and other non-family advocates that need to build trust with incarcerated people in order to assist with personal and legal affairs.

The industry and correctional facilities have largely focused on the promised benefits of video visitation, but reform advocates have long expressed their concerns. We found an article by a person incarcerated in Colorado all the way back in 2008 that nicely summarized both the promise and fear represented by video visitation:

“If video visits are an addition [to in-person visits] they will be a help to all and a God-send to many. But, if video visits are a replacement for the current visitation, their implementation would be a painful unwelcome change that would be impersonal and dehumanizing.”


This is an excerpt of the full Screening Out Family Time report published by the Prison Policy Initiative in 2015. Read the original, complete report here.

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