Inmates’ families: Video-only visits have financial, emotional costs

Jun 3, 2013

Even if you've never visited a jail, you probably have a pretty clear image of what inmate visitation is like: a shatterproof glass barrier, two people sitting on either side, speaking into telephones. But that's changing in some parts of the Northwest.

More and more county jails are switching to privately-operated video conferencing systems that are not unlike Skype for inmates. But these systems have technical difficulties, and come with costs for the inmates’ families.

'There’s a lot of problems’

James Weimer is at his wit’s end. He's standing at an automated kiosk in the lobby of the Bannock County jail in southern Idaho. And he can't figure out how to log into the video visitation system.

“It don’t work very well, I’ll tell ya,” he said.

Weimer is trying to set up a visit with his granddaughter. Luckily, a technician from the company that runs the video system happens to be in the building. But even with his help, things aren't going well. They work on it for 20 minutes.

“There's a lot of problems. I've seen a lot of people in here,” Weimer said. “Very frustrated.”

Jails across the Northwest—from Lincoln County, Oregon to Benton County, Washington, to Ada County, Idaho—now offer some form of video visitation. A new jail known as The Score in King County was built in 2011 with only video in mind; no in-person visits are allowed at all.

A less labor-intensive approach for jail staff

To corrections agencies, swapping out Plexiglas for computer monitors is a safer and less expensive route.

Telmate, a company based in Ontario, Ore., is becoming a major player in the video visitation business. The company has installed systems at 29 correctional facilities across in the region, including Idaho’s Bannock County.

“Historically, this whole lobby would be full right now on a first-come-first-serve basis, so it was very labor-intensive for the staff at the desk,” said Darren Wallace, vice president of business development for Telmate, describing how things used to be at the Bannock County jail. “Additionally, you have inmates who cannot be in the same room at the same time, so that's difficult to manage.”

Wallace says the technology just takes some getting used to. Last year, Telmate installed the first statewide system in Oregon's prisons. Since then, he points out, people from opposite corners of the state—and even other countries—have successfully made more than 3,000 online video calls with Oregon prisoners.

Now, video is an added option in Oregon. Inmates can still meet with their families in person as well. What worries inmate advocates is the trend toward video visits only, and, in some cases, charging families for the visit.

'It’s not like you’re right there’

Studies show inmates who maintain personal connections to the outside world are less likely to re-offend, and corrections experts don’t know yet whether those interactions are as effective on a computer screen.

“The video's very grainy,” said Jennifer Lopez of Pocatello, Idaho. “You know, like slow-moving. There's kind of delays, and it's not like you're right there. I mean, I'm in the same building as them. I don't see why I shouldn't be able to see them.”

In her early 20s, Lopez was busted for meth. She says the support she got from her family while she was in jail laid the groundwork for her to get clean and stay clean, going on eight years now.

Lopez is trying to do the same for Robbie, a 19-year-old friend of the family who recently landed in jail for fighting and eluding the cops. But Lopez says half of her visits haven’t worked out because of technical problems. On top of that, Telmate tacks on all kinds of charges. For example, Lopez says she paid an $8 fee to put $25 on Robbie's account.

“I want to be there to give him that support, but with this new Telmate system, it makes it really hard to support your loved one, whether it’s money-wise, communication-wise, because they nickel and dime you on everything, every little aspect. And it’s supposed to make things simpler, but it doesn’t,” she said.

A ‘perverse’—and lucrative—relationship

Lopez says those charges are especially hard on poor families like hers.

But sheriffs associations, including the ones in Oregon and Idaho, argue revenue from telecommunications helps offset the high cost to taxpayers of housing inmates. Bannock County, for example, has made $35,000 since October through what are known as commissions from Telmate.

This is part of what Portland lawyer Stephen Raher calls the “perverse” relationship between the corrections system and telecom companies. He says the commissions create an incentive for counties to negotiate higher costs, which the inmates’ families have to pay.

Raher says whether it’s phones or video, these are symptoms of the same problem.

“When you think about it, most companies, the incentive to provide good customer service is the danger that unhappy customers will take their business elsewhere,” Raher said. “That is not really an issue in the inmate communications services industry because customers don’t have that option.”

The FCC is now considering regulating the rates for phones in jails and prisons.

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