After April 15, inmates at the Adult Detention Center in Lowndes County, Mississippi will no longer be allowed to visit with family members face to face. Newton County, Missouri, implemented an in-person visitor ban last month. The Allen County Jail in Indiana phased out in-person visits earlier this year.
All three changes are part of a nationwide trend toward “video visitation” services. Instead of seeing their loved ones face to face, inmates are increasingly limited to talking to them through video terminals.
Even some advocates of the change admit that it has downsides for inmates and their families. Ryan Rickert, jail administrator at the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center, acknowledged to The Commercial Dispatch that inmates were disappointed they wouldn’t get to see family members anymore. Advocates of this approach point to an upside for families: they can now make video calls to loved ones from home instead of having to physically travel to the jail.
These services are ludicrously expensive. Video calls cost 40¢ per minute in Newton County, 50¢ per minute in Lowndes County, and $10 per call in Allen County. Outside of prison, of course, video calls on Skype or FaceTime are free.
These “visitation” services are also noticeably inferior to mainstream video calling apps. When I was working on a story about the video visitation trend last year, I wanted to try the technology out for myself. So I called inmate Justin Harker at the Knox County Jail in Tennessee. As I wrote at the time, the video was grainy and jerky, periodically freezing up altogether. The call cost me 19¢ per minute.
Harker told me that on-site calls are somewhat better quality. But he still said that these video calls were no substitute for a face-to-face visit. “It’s not the same,” he said.
So why are so many jails adopting them? A big motivator is money. In-person visits are labor intensive. Prison guards need to escort inmates to and from visitation rooms, supervise the visits, and in some cases pat down visitors for contraband. In contrast, video terminals can be installed inside each cell block, minimizing the need to move inmates around the jail.
Video-visitation systems also directly generate revenue for jails. The companies behind the video calling products typically install equipment inside jails at no cost to taxpayers, charge high fees to family members, and then pay a large share of those fees back to the jail.
Inmates in Newton Count, Missouri can also pay 10¢ per message for instant messaging, the Joplin Globe reports. Newton County gets a share of the proceeds.
Of course, jails could offer video calling without shutting down in-person visits. But the fact that jails get a share of the proceeds from these services creates a perverse incentive for them to end in-person visits. As long as in-person visits are available, many family members will take the time to drive to prison and see their loved one. But if only video visits are available on site, more family members will opt for the convenience and privacy they get by calling from home.