Video visitation companies provide real-time interactive video communication services for family members and others visiting incarcerated people. Traveling to visit an incarcerated loved one in-person can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor, so being able to visit remotely by video may seem to be a convenient option for families of incarcerated people. However, video visitation companies do not operate like Skype or FaceTime, a common misconception. Instead, video visitation companies charge exorbitantly high rates for remote capabilities, operate through unreliable technology, and shut down traditional in-person visitation in prisons and jails using it.
Video visitation companies are often phone companies that bundle their video services with their phone service contracts with prisons and jails. According to the Human Rights Defense Center phone justice director, "video has become a bigger and bigger deal in part to help replace some of the telephone revenue that's been lost” due to the FCC capping the rates that phone companies can charge. These companies charge up to $1.50 per minute for their remote video visitation services, which can be in addition to registration and other hidden fees.
The screens and bandwidth that these companies use are substandard, which can be detrimental to maintaining relationships between people who are incarcerated, their families, and their legal advocates. An investigation by the Prison Policy Initiative found that “families struggle to clearly see the incarcerated person with video visits and instead face a pixelated or sometimes frozen image of the incarcerated person.” Furthermore, families without access to a computer, who don’t have high-speed internet, or for whom English is not their first language can have extra difficulty navigating the technology, which can result in their exclusion from video visitation. Attorneys have complained and even filed lawsuits against video visitation, noting that video consultations make it difficult to establish trust and rapport with their clients, and that jail officials have illegally turned over recorded attorney visits to prosecutors.
In the same investigation, the Prison Policy Initiative also found that 74% of county jails ban in-person visits once they implement video visitation. Securus, a prominent video visitation company, even had a clause in their video contract requiring that jails ban in-person visits, a practice the company announced would stop in 2015. The video visitation industry has structured its contracts so companies provide the visitation systems at no cost to the facility, with commissions paid to the jail or prison for every video visit. This provides additional incentives for the facility to eliminate in-person visiting, since in-person visits generate no revenue. Securus claims that is has paid $1.3 billion in commission incentives to correctional facilities over the past ten years.
Jails and prisons use video visitation as a surveillance and investigation tool: every video visit is recorded and reviewed. In its 2013 Best and Final bid to Florida DOC for statewide inmate phone services, Embarq Payphone Services Inc. (dba CenturyLink) details the investigative capabilities of its video visiting program. Their system records 100% of all visits, entering them into a highly searchable database, with customizable queries and enhanced listening capabilities. Such intrusions into family and personal visiting further dehumanize people in prison, and subject their families to suspicion and humiliation.
The tendency of jails to shut down in-person visitation is one of the most consequential results of the privatized video visitation industry. Research by the Vera Justice Institute and criminal justice experts has confirmed that being able to connect with family members directly reduces an incarcerated person’s chance of being re-incarcerated and improves their overall chances for successful reentry upon release. A 2011 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. A 2014 report by the US Department of Justice cautioned that “visiting cannot replicate seeing someone in-person, and it is critical for a young child to visit his or her incarcerated parent in person to establish a secure attachment.” In the same report, it was advised that prisons and jails maintain a hybrid visitation model, with video and in-person, and keep fees for visitors at an affordable minimum if using charging fees at all.
When incarcerated people and their families have access to visits only by remote video, the difficulties of maintaining family relationships are increased. When attorney-client consultations are recorded, there is the potential for jail officials to improperly disclose information to prosecutors and serious legal questions arise. Expensive, substandard, and exclusive video visitation technology cannot substitute face-to-face visits. It serves to keep people in prisons and jails rather than improve their chances for success upon their return to the community.
The leading companies listed below have the most contracts with jails and prisons to provide video visits. CenturyLink is the only publically traded company, which is why we have chosen it for divestment.
The Prison Policy Initiative and partners across the country have been fighting this industry at the local level and now are taking the call for regulation all the way to the Federal Communications Commission. They published a comprehensive report in January 2015 titled Screening Out Family Time: the for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails.
Grassroots Leadership has a program called “#inSecurus | Ensuring Visitation for Prisoners and their Loved Ones,” which is working with national, state, and local partners to stop the expansion of for-profit, video-only visitation policies, to restore in-person visitation where it has been removed, and to address the contracting practices of the technology companies telling video visitation products. They have created a fact sheet and published a report on this industry in October 2014 titled Video Visitation: how private companies push for visits by video and families pay the price.