Arkansas Jumps on the Prison Video Visitation Bandwagon

More than 40 states offer video visitation for jail and prison inmates, but at a hefty cost to their families.

(Photo: Strike Industries/Facebook)

Apr 15, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Skype, FaceTime, and Google video chat are omnipresent options for far-flung friends and family members who want to keep in touch via face-to-face interactions. The same goes for people in jail and prison, some of whom rely on video visitation services. But those visual check-ins, like phone calls, can come with a hefty price tag for prisoners and their families.

A contract with video visitation service company Securus Technologies, unanimously approved by the Arkansas Board of Corrections, may be signed this week, Department of Correction spokesperson Cathy Frye told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. If enacted, the contract will provide millions of dollars in kickbacks to the state from Securus, funneled in part from the $12.95 fee paid by jail and prison inmates and their family members for a 30-minute video call plus fees, surcharges, and taxes. When Securus recoups its installation costs in a few years, the state expects to start making about $2.59 per video call.

The move makes Arkansas the latest state to jump on the video visitation bandwagon. As of 2014, more than 500 prisons and jails across 43 states and the District of Columbia are using video visitation services. Some prisons and jails have even replaced in-person visits with video.

Federal regulators have intervened in the past when it comes to the cost of communicating with prisoners: In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission set limits on phone calls, saying they shouldn’t cost more than 21 cents or 25 cents a minute, depending on the type of call.

Video visitation has its upsides. “Video visiting can conceivably be a positive thing if it’s used as a supplement to conventional in-person visiting,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. But despite this potential benefit, particularly for prisoners incarcerated at facilities far away from family members, such services aren’t a meaningful replacement for in-person visits.

With the introduction of video visitation, many corrections departments have cut in-person visits altogether to eliminate staffing costs and the hassle of shuttling family members in and out of secure facilities. Arkansas’ contract will not eliminate in-person visits, Frye said. Research has repeatedly shown that in-person contact with people on the outside increases a person’s chance of successfully reentering society after release from prison or jail. One study found that an inmate’s risk of re-offending after release was reduced by 25 percent if he or she was visited in prison by family or clergy.

Then there’s the expense. As with phone services for prisons run by private companies, Arkansas’ contract with Securus means a profit for both the company and the state, with prisoners and their families paying the price. Many of these families are among the poorest in the country, according to advocacy think tank the Prison Policy Initiative.

“These companies are part of a full industry that sees mass incarceration not as a problem but as a profit-making opportunity,” Fathi said.