Unfortunately, however, what could be a positive additional means for prisoners and their families to stay in touch is in danger of becoming any thing but a blessing. Some jurisdictions have already begun to eliminate contact visits entirely in favor of their virtual counterpart and private corporations are already lining up to exploit this latest opportunity to fleece prisoners' families.
A new report (pdf) by the Sentencing Project examined the growth of video calls and what it means for children whose parents are incarcerated. It came to the fairly logical conclusion that as long as virtual visits are supplemental to the real thing, are not cost-prohibitive and that the calls can be frequent and made from home or from a nearby site, then they can be a very good thing. Considering that video technology is readily available to anyone who has a computer, that it's cheap (or often free to use), there's no good reason why video calls to prison should not be an affordable and easy alternative. Many prison jurisdictions are, however, negating the best aspects of the "video visit", either by charging exorbitant fees or by requiring the families to make the trek to the prison, or a site near the prison, to make the call.
For instance, this past July, the District of Columbia eliminated the possibility of regular, old fashioned face-to-face visits with prisoners and switched to video visitation only. They do not charge the families for the actual video call, but the calls can only be made by appointment from a facility a few hundred yards from the prison. So family members still have to absorb the inconvenience and cost of traveling to the prison, but without the payoff of getting a real, live visit once they get there.
The DC department of corrections has been touting the wonderful benefits of this new system; it is to save them hundreds of thousands of dollars and avoids all the inconvenience of having to escort prisoners from their cells to the visiting area. Needless to say, the prisoners, who now get more cell time and no face time with their families, are less enthusiastic.
For now, at least, the families are not charged for the "convenience" of these video visits, but advocates worry that this may soon change. The teleconferencing technology was installed for no cost by Global Tel Link, a private corporation that is in the business of making money. As it turns out, Global Tel Link already has an exclusive contract with the DC department of corrections for all their inmate telephone calls. At present, like all phone companies who are doing business with prisons, they get to charge their captive audience exorbitant rates that would not be tolerated, or legal, in the free world.
A long-overdue ruling is expected shortly from the Federal Communications Commission and that is expected to impose a limit on prison phone rates. We'll see how long video calls remain free, then, once this major source of revenue for the telecoms companies dries up.
Some jurisdictions are already charging exorbitant fees for video visits and even boasting about their potential as a great new revenue stream. The sheriff of Ada County, Idaho has claimed that virtual visits will generate more than $2m over two years presumably, out of the pockets of inmate's families. In Virginia, the department of corrections touts the expansion of the Video Visitation Program on their website as a means for families "to meet with their imprisoned family or friends without having to invest the time and money in traveling long distances to correctional facilities". The families can, instead, "meet" their loved ones for the bargain price of $15 for a 30 minute video session, or $30 for 60 minutes.
The Virginia DOC also claims that the "minimal fee" does not benefit it, but goes towards defraying costs. The fact is, however, that if those families were calling a loved one that was not incarcerated, using software like Skype or some other VoIP service, the call would cost them nothing.
When the profit motive is removed from the equation, video visits as a supplement to regular visits can be a great thing. In New York, for instance, the Osborne Association has an excellent program in place that allows children to televisit their mothers in the Albion Correctional Facility, which is the largest women's prison in New York state and the furthest away from the city. The kids get to spend 45 minutes in a child-friendly environment talking, playing, doing their homework with or being read to by their incarcerated mothers, with whom they otherwise would rarely get to interact. The program uses the most basic video calling software and there is no charge to the families.
Sadly, this set-up is the exception rather than the norm and that's a pity because strong family bonds are key to reducing recidivism. Since prisons are supposed to be about rehabilitation and promoting public safety, it's disturbing to see that another means of achieving these goals is in danger of becoming just another way to punish prisoners and make a quick buck off their often hard-pressed families.