America's prisons are replacing vital in-person visits with expensive, nonfunctional video calling

A new documentary, "(In)Securus Technologies: An Assault on Prisoner Rights", tracks the rise of for-profit video "visitation" programs, which are being rolled out across America's unimaginably huge prison system, replacing the in-person visits that have been shown to be vital for prisoners' successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

The leader in prison videoconferencing is Securus Technologies, which built its fortune providing the sky-high telephone service that most prisons switched over to, gouging prisoners' families so badly that the FCC stepped in to regulate their pricing (Securus and its competitors are suing the FCC over the order). They also sell "e-stamps" that assess a per-message fee on prisoners' emails.

Like most technologies imposed on captive audiences, the videoconferencing that prisoners and their families use is terrible: barely functional, unsupported, and expensive ($10 for 20 minutes). By replacing visitation with videoconferencing, prisons save the cost of guard-labor for in-person conferences, and gain revenue in the form of kickbacks from the technology providers. Neither the prisons nor the contractors have any incentive to make the product work well, or to lower its costs — in fact, the more expensive it is, the more the prison and its private partners make.

The evidence on the effect of in-person visits on prisoners' well-being, mental health and reintegration is compelling, and heartbreaking, when you consider that these visits will be denied to American prisoners (America imprisons more people, in total numbers and per capita, than any other country in the history of the world).

It's a tax on the families of prisoners — families that are already struggling with the stress of an incarcerated loved one. It's being done under color of law. It's making a small number of people very rich.

County officials across the country claim video visitation is good for security. When Renaud got ahold of prison records, they showed that incidences of inmate-on-inmate violence, disciplinary infractions and possession of contraband all rose after Travis County did away with in-person visitation. Because visitation is so new, these statistics are the earliest indication that the pro-security pitch for video visitation is all snake oil.

But perhaps the strongest case for visitation is that it keeps people out of jail. Prison recidivism goes way down for those who keep up strong family and community ties throughout their incarcerations.

The past decade in research shows consistently that maintaining the relationships the incarcerated will inevitably return to for support once they're released is a powerful agent in keeping them from repeat offenses. One study of over 16,000 incarcerated people found that any visitation at all, even just once, reduced the risk of recidivism by 13% for felony reconvictions.

The End of
Prison Visitation
[Jack Smith IV/Mic]