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'Video visitation' expanding in Arkansas jails 

Critics say it costs poor families.

VIDEO VISITATION: To pay or not to pay is just one of the questions image
  • VIDEO VISITATION: To pay or not to pay is just one of the questions.

Imagine the prospect of speaking to a loved one solely via a television screen for weeks, months or years rather than in person and you start to see the issue with the expansion of "video visitation" in Arkansas jails.

Essentially a for-pay version of the free video-call service Skype, video visitation allows families to visit their jailed loved ones by sitting in front of video screens equipped with a camera, either from home or a kiosk usually located in the lobby of the jail.

For thousands of families in Arkansas, video visitation is now the only option. Since 2013, almost a dozen jails in the state have installed video visitation systems, with many of those facilities phasing out free, through-the-glass visits entirely. Families are sometimes charged up to $1 a minute to speak with a loved one, even if they travel to the jail.

Jail administrators say that eliminating face-to-face visits between inmates and their families cuts down on contraband, keeps detention officers safe by eliminating the need to move prisoners from their cells to the visitation room, and allows relatives to visit with an inmate through the Internet even if they're far away. Critics of the technology say it's another example of corporations seeking to monetize inmate/family interactions.

According to a report on video visitation released by the Prison Policy Initiative in January, more than 500 facilities in 43 states and the District of Columbia have installed video visitation systems. In Arkansas, that includes detention centers in Jefferson, Miller, Greene, White and Crittenden counties. Jails in Hempstead and Saline counties have recently announced they will install video visitation systems as well.

A spokesman for the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office said that the technology isn't being considered for the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center. Cathy Frye, spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Correction, said that the ADC is considering video visitation, though she said it would be offered as an option for those who can't travel to visit incarcerated loved ones, not as a substitute for in-person visits through glass.

The PPI report points out a number of positives for video visitation, including making it possible for families to visit despite distance from the jail or prison and visitation hours that make it difficult or impossible for working people and young children to visit. However, the report says that the drawbacks to video visitation are considerable, including the expense of video visitation systems at the jail that charge by the minute; the substantial cost of obtaining a laptop, webcam and broadband service for poor families who already can't afford to travel to a facility; the impersonal nature of communicating by camera and video screen (including the placement of cameras above the screen rather than at screen level so there can be eye contact between visitor and inmate); and technological glitches.

"The technology is poorly designed and implemented," the report says. "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 to the ground, the placement of video visitation terminals in pods of cells, etc."

One of those cited in the PPI report is Dee Ann Newell, founder of Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, a nonprofit that works with the children of the incarcerated. As noted in the report, Newell said she was present during a video visit in which a 3-year-old child was so upset and confused by seeing his incarcerated parent on a video screen that he hyperventilated, requiring a trip to the emergency room.

"He was so distressed and banging on the box," Newell said. "For a lot of your very young, preschool age children, it's confusing. It's one thing if you see your mom or dad on TV, but it's not the same thing as seeing them in person."

Newell said that she is concerned about the rush to video visitation in Arkansas jails, especially when it comes to the children of the incarcerated. She said the need for children to see their parent in person rather than on a TV screen is important.

"It's different to go and look through that glass and talk to your mom or dad through the phone, and to be looking at them on a TV screen," she said. "It's just not the same, developmentally, for the children. ... If you measure it out and weigh it out, the need to stop contraband coming in versus the need for these children to have some direct contact with their parent outweighs it."

Marty Brazell is the warden at the Miller County Detention Center in Texarkana, which installed one of the first video visitation systems in the state in September 2013. He said he has received no complaints about video visitation from inmates or family members since the system was installed.

The decision to go to video visits was made because the growth of the jail population had made the previous visitation procedure, with inmates brought up eight at a time to talk to their relatives through glass, logistically difficult, Brazell said. The jail averaged 305 inmates per day in 2014.

"It's really almost physically impossible for every one of those inmates to have visitation in person," Brazell said. "It's something that, logistically, you couldn't hardly do. There's always security involved when you have to bring an inmate up to visit. You've got to handle that inmate to bring him up, you've got to handle him to bring him back."

There are two options for video visitation at the Miller County Jail. One is a system called HomeWav, a product of a Virginia-based company that allows inmates to visit with loved ones via the Internet. The other is a bank of video kiosks in the jail lobby, connected to corresponding kiosks in each jail pod. HomeWav visitation is available from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and costs $1 per minute. Kiosk visitation is available two nights a week from 7 p.m. to around 9:30 p.m. and is free, Brazell said. There is also an in-person booth where inmates can visit through glass with their attorney or with a family member in the case of a serious illness or death in the family.

Though setting up the system was expensive, Miller County has made visitation through the lobby kiosks free because it helps inmate discipline and morale. "We want them to have contact with the outside world," Brazell said. "You would be surprised by how many [inmate problems] are solved by having family members talk to them."

The video visitation system at the Jefferson County Detention Center in Pine Bluff is similar to the one in Miller County. Families can visit with an inmate through one of five video kiosks in the lobby of the jail, or from their homes via the HomeWav system, which at this detention center costs 50 cents a minute after a $1, one-time setup fee. Those who come to the jail to speak to an inmate through one of the kiosks also pay 50 cents per minute, after a $1 setup fee. Only attorneys are allowed to speak to inmates free and in person.

Maj. Tyra Tyler, assistant jail administrator at Jefferson County Jail, said that one reason the jail uses the video visitation system is to keep out contraband that might be carried in by visiting families. "When they come into the facility, for instance, and they go to the restroom," Tyler said, "if we had [an inmate] porter who would go out and clean the restroom, that was always an opportunity for someone to leave substances here that they should not leave."

Tyler said the jail has received mostly positive feedback about the system. Asked if charging money for inmates to visit with their families who come to the jail is a concern, Tyler said it was not. "We did look at that aspect," she said. "But we also have commissary at our facility and our detainees spend money every week on commissary. We've not had a family member or anyone to complain about having to [pay to talk]."

Carrie Wilkinson is the director of Prison Phone Justice, a Seattle-based arm of the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center. Wilkinson has been watching the spread of video visitation closely, and said the technology has "really ramped up" since last year, likely due to prison telecoms seeking a replacement for lost revenue in the wake of the FCC's capping interstate prison phone rates starting in 2014.

"In general, I think video visitation can be a good option for people, but it has to be an option," she said. "If your loved one is 1,000 miles away and you can't get there for a visit, a video visit could be a great thing. But we are very concerned about the facilities that are eliminating in-person visitation."

Wilkinson said she believes that the elimination of in-person visits in favor of for-pay video visits has more to do with profit than either facility security or budgets. Wilkinson notes that the security concerns and staffing required to bring prisoners to the visitation room has been part of the cost of incarceration in America since jails were first built. She said the move to charge people per minute for visitation after they have traveled to a jail is "particularly egregious."

"To make them do a video visit is horrible, but then to charge them for it is even worse," she said. "That's reprehensible in my opinion. If you're going to incarcerate people, you have to pay the costs of incarceration, and visitation is one of those costs."

Wilkinson said working against the spread of for-pay video visitation will be the subject of the next major campaign by Prison Phone Justice. She said studies have shown that keeping prisoners in regular contact with their families is important to keep them from going back to jail. If an inmate is locked up for six months and his family doesn't have the money to pay 50 cents per minute for regular visitation at the county jail, he's less likely to be "set up for success" when he — or she — gets out.

"You can't isolate people and then throw them back into society and expect it to work," Wilkinson said. "It doesn't work, and we know it doesn't work, based on what we see now with our prison population. We can change that. And we can start with video visitation."

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