On Sept. 9 inmates at state and federal facilities across the country refused to go to work, in a mass protest over their living conditions. While the strike did not extend to those incarcerated in county jails, the same serious issues exist there too. One of the most troubling that you probably haven’t heard about is the current boom in video-only visitation.
Starting in the 1990s, for-profit prison technology companies like Securus Technologies, GTL and JPay started selling local jails on the idea of installing video screens by which jail occupants (who include generally those serving sentences of up to a year for misdemeanors and—the vast majority—those awaiting trial) could stay in contact with their families without their families having to visit.
The proposed benefits were many. Those who lived far from where their friend or relative who was locked up wouldn’t have to travel. Those who lived close likewise wouldn’t have to be stuck trying to fit a visit in the narrow scheduling windows of the jail. By video they could talk any time of the day and on any day (even on Christmas). And children wouldn’t have to be exposed to pat downs or any of the other troubling parts of incarceration.
Also, as with the phone services these companies already provided, jails would receive a commission based on the number of video visits they had, and/or the length of those calls. And these commissions added up to significant amounts of money. The International Business Times reported in March that Marion County, Fla., whose jail holds roughly 2,500 inmates, received over $550,000 in commissions in 2015 from Securus.
Companies like Securus could offer such generous kickbacks because the charges for video visitation remains unregulated by the federal government. In some jails a company might charge as much as $1 a minute for a video visit; most require a 20 or 30-minute minimum fee. (This, despite the fact in September last year an Ella Baker Center for Human Rights report found that 1 in 3 families of the incarcerated go into debt to cover their communications and visitation costs.)
In the meantime, in 2015 the Federal Communications Commission came down hard on the prison communications industry for grossly overcharging for phone calls. According to Jim Lindburg, legislative director of the Friends Committee on Legislation of California, “We had a situation in California where a prisoner could call an uncle in North Dakota and the uncle would pay maybe $5 to talk for a half an hour; but if that same prisoner called [locally to] his mother in Monterey, because the FCC had not regulated rates within the state, it might cost his mother $20 to talk for five minutes.”
In capping the rates at correctional facilities, the F.C.C. radically diminished a major spigot of income for both the for-profit companies and the local jails who had come to rely on the commissions. One result has been, as Lindburg explains, “the industry promoting video-only visitation as a way for local sheriffs to make up for some of that lost commission.”
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