Video Visits in Prisons Enhance Connections, But at a Cost

Video Visits In Prisons Enhance Connections But At A Cost Full
Video visits in prisons and jails have proliferated, driven in part by private vendors who are willing to cover the costs of implementation while charging fees directly to users.

Here at Vera, we decided to investigate the impact of introducing video visits in one state prison system, and found just how much potential is being missed. We partnered with Washington State Department of Corrections, where people who are incarcerated have been able to access video visits since 2013. The service, provided by JPay, allows users to receive video calls from approved visitors anywhere in the community, at a cost of $12.95 for a 30 minute call. Our study found that video calls can make a powerful supplement to prison life—when people used the service regularly, they saw an increase of between 40 and 50 percent in the number of in-person visits they received. The users of the service explained that video visits provided a safe space for them to maintain and strengthen their relationships with people in the community.

Even here, however, the service only benefited a small percentage of the incarcerated population. People who used the service suggested that poor picture and sound quality, combined with a high cost, deterred people from using the system more frequently. A high level of need certainly existed; Vera found that, during a one-year period, 45 percent of incarcerated people did not receive any in-person visits. Distance from home was a significant factor; for every additional mile from home that people were incarcerated, the number of visits they received decreased by about one percent. The average distance from home for people incarcerated in Washington State prisons was nearly 130 miles.

For incarcerated people, receiving visits is important. The opportunity to see loved ones in person has been linked to better outcomes for everyone—improving people’s mental health and decreasing the likelihood that they commit new crimes, which is an important consideration for public safety. Vera’s study shows that video visits could play an important role in promoting stronger relationships between incarcerated people and their families and friends. At present, this potential is only being realized marginally. And when in-person visits are scrapped in favor of video visits, agencies are likely doing more harm than good.

One thing that we know for certain, however, is that technology continues to evolve. Soon, the current models of video visitation—where incarcerated people access the service through kiosks in their housing units—may be replaced with Internet-connected tablets. And after that? Perhaps something else. Through all of these changes, more needs to be done to ensure that technology is democratized in similar ways within custodial settings as it has been on the outside—available to everyone, unhampered by poor quality and high costs. At the same time, the right to in-person visits must not only be fiercely safeguarded, it should also be bolstered for the benefit of all people, both inside and outside of prison.