Over the years, local governments have turned to private companies to manage more and more of the American penal system. Sometimes prisons themselves, but also probation and drug treatment services, transportation, and phone systems. Now, add jail visitation to the list.
Until this past fall, Joel Goff had never set foot in the Lewis County Jail. Then his son was arrested.
When he planned a visit, Goff says, “I was really expecting to go, empty my pockets, go into a room, glass area and stuff, you know, have a chair, just like you see on TV and stuff. And, uh, no!”
Instead, Goff found there would be no human contact. A clerk directed him to a computer where he could set up an account: video visits would cost 50 cents a minute, from a jail monitor or his home computer.
“Welcome to the Homewav video visitation system,” purrs an online tutorial for the system installed in Lewis County. “Think of it as a type of Skype while your loved one is detained,” it continues, backed by an acoustic guitar. “Ready to get started?”
At home, Goff experienced technical difficulties from the start. “We either could get voice with no video or video with no voice,” he says.
He says having to pay for the service added insult to injury.
“I don’t think that’s right to have to pay to go talk to a loved one,” he says. “We were just trying to go down there and help him, to see whether he had access to rehab services or anything like that.”
The charges added up quickly: there was a minimum deposit and a service fee on every transaction. When his son was transferred, Goff says, there was money left on the account, and no way to get it back.
Jail administrator Kevin Hansen, though, defends the system, saying face-to-face visits have their own costs.
“If they’ve gotta drive 5 miles, 10 miles, what is that, a gallon of gas?” Hansen asks rhetorically. “How much is that gonna cost you? Four bucks. So, for four bucks, you can stay at home, or go down to your local library if you don’t have internet at home, and pay for an eight-minute visitation.”
Hansen also sees benefits for the jail’s bottom line. “We used to dedicate two full days of staff labor to visitation,” he says. “Twenty dollars an hour, for 16 hours a week: it’s a significant savings to the taxpayers.”
When he first learned about new video technology in a trade magazine, Hansen says he wasn’t looking to do video visits at all. What he wanted was the ability to conduct some court hearings over the internet, and avoid taking inmates to the courthouse.
Homewav offered a way to pay for both.
“I ended up killing two birds with one stone,” Hansen says, “and it was cost-neutral. It didn’t cost me a dime to install any of this.”
Here’s how it works: Homewav installs video stations in each cell block at no cost to the jail. Then it charges families for each video visit. Lewis County takes a 40 percent cut and Homewav keeps the rest.
More than 500 facilities around the country have adopted video visitation systems so far, ostensibly to save taxpayers money. Carrie Wilkinson, director of the Prison Phone Justice campaign at the Human Rights Defense Center, says that argument misses the point.
“I think as a society, if we’re going to incarcerate people, you have to pay the costs that are associated with that,” she says. “If that means you have to have guards to staff so that people can come visit their loved ones, then that’s part of the deal.
Wilkinson also questions the high prices charged by vendors, pointing out that Skype, for instance, is free.
“Remember you’re talking about a prison,” says Rick Smith, CEO of Securus, one of the largest video visitation providers in the country.
“You’re talking thick, reinforced, concrete walls that have to be plunged and drilled. It’s a totally hardened unit, made out of steel. The glass on it is touch-sensitive," Smith says. "So it’s a tremendous investment for us, and we need to recoup that in some way."
Vendors set pricing in their contract proposals. During negotiations, they work with jail administrators to adjust visitation rules so the video systems will be profitable. “And that usually means,” Smith says, “if you’re them, and you ran the numbers, that would mean, ‘Huh, I have to increase the amount of video activity and decrease the level of physical contact.’ That’s just the economics of that.”
Officials in Dallas recently faced backlash for considering a Securus proposal that would have eliminated free and in-person visits altogether. “If you vote for this contract, you will be voting to take the most money from the least able to pay,” Phyllis Guess told county commissioners at a public hearing.
Dallas officials scrapped that plan in favor of more access for visitors. But at a number of other county jails, from Oregon to Mississippi to Wisconsin, paid visits are the only option.
Lewis County’s contract with Homewav limits free visitation to one hour a month. In practice, jail administrators are ignoring even that. No in-person visits at all, and, says Kevin Hansen, if relatives want a free visit in Lewis County, “I guess it’s up to them to show me they don’t have any money.”
Hansen says his office makes exceptions on a case-by-case basis. But the jail doesn’t advertise that possibility. It’s also an intimidating place to ask for special treatment.
“I wouldn’t have even imagined that was the case,” says Laurie Blurton, whose stepdaughter has been in and out of jail for substance abuse problems. “I doubt very many people would try.”
Blurton works at the local mall, and video visits her stepdaughter whenever she can. These days, it doesn’t happen much. As the lone breadwinner in her family, and she says she doesn’t often have cash to spare.
“Ten dollars means a lot. That’s milk, and bread, and stuff for a week,” Blurton says.
Without being able to stay in touch, she can’t help but feel she’s letting her daughter down.
“I keep hoping for the best,” Blurton says. “But when she’s in there, and the only influence she has is people who are also in jail, she doesn’t get much of a chance when she gets out, to do anything different, other than what she did to get in there.”
Blurton says she understands how video visitation could make things easier on families that live far away. In her case, the jail is a five-minute walk from home.
Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio