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Connecting incarcerated people to loved ones gets better—and worse.

In recent years, some prisons and jails have begun offering video visitation, which allows incarcerated people to contact family or friends through video calls. This is particularly useful for people incarcerated far away from their families, which can make in-person visits difficult and expensive.Kajstura and Immarigeon, “States of Women’s Incarceration.”

A 2017 Vera report examining video visitation in Washington State prisons found that people who regularly used video visitation also saw a 40–50 percent increase in the number of in-person visits they received, suggesting that the calls helped strengthen family ties.Léon Digard, Jessi LaChance, and Jennifer Hill, Closing the Distance: The Impact of Video Visits on Washington State Prisons (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017). However, video calls often suffer from poor sound and picture quality, and private video service providers can charge steep fees to incarcerated people and their families.Léon Digard, Jessi LaChance, and Jennifer Hill, Closing the Distance: The Impact of Video Visits on Washington State Prisons (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017). Moreover, instead of offering video visitation as a supplement to in-person visits, some systems, especially jails, are using it as a replacement and ending in-person visitation entirely.Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner, Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry In Prisons and Jails (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2015) (in-person visitation has been banned in 74 percent of jails with video visitation), 11; and Issie Lapowsky, “Video Chat Price-Gouging Costs Inmates More Than Money,” Wired, August 31, 2017.

Phone calls placed from prison are often exceptionally expensive—one report found that prison phone companies may charge up to $24.95 for a 15-minute call.Wagner and Rabuy, “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration” (2017). In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enacted a rule to cap the rates companies could charge for calls from within prisons; but in June 2017, an appeals court overturned this policy with respect to calls placed within a single state, leaving it applicable only to interstate calls.Global Tel*Link v. FCC, No. 15-1461, (D.C. Cir. 2017); and Harper Neidig, “Court Strikes Down FCC Caps on In-State Prison Phone Rates,” The Hill, June 13, 2017. The FCC under the Trump administration announced that it would no longer defend the cap.Hanna Kozlowska, “Under Trump, the FCC Will No Longer Fight to Make Exorbitant Prison Phone Call Rates Cheaper,” Quartz, February 7, 2017.