Viewing the World through a Screen: The High Cost of Video Chats in County Jails

By Shannon Brien

When people talk about privatization of the prison industry, most of the conversation revolves around those corporations who have contracts from counties, states, and the federal government to manage the physical prison itself. However, other types of corporations also take advantage of private contracts with prisons, from food providers to phone companies. One such company is Securus Technologies, Inc., which in 2014 signed a contract with Maricopa County to provide video visitations for inmates to the complete exclusion of traditional in-person visits.[1] This video visitation service was broadcast as a “win for everyone” by then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio.[2] However, the costs of this service – both financial and emotional – have shown to far outweigh any claimed convenience for inmates and their loved ones.

Securus Technologies was formed in 2004 as the result of a merger between two existing corporations focused on inmate communication. [3] In 2013, the company bought out Satellite Tracking of People (STOP), LLC., which provides ankle monitoring services to inmate release programs.[4] Today, video teleconferencing, contraband prevention, and ankle monitor services make up a majority of the company’s incarceration programs, with additional services in educational and medical services for incarcerated individuals.[5]

In November of 2014, Securus installed over 600 video communication “terminals” in the Maricopa County jail system, making it the largest video platform in any jail system in the country.[6] The video chats immediately replaced all non-legal in-person visits, which averaged over 20,000 per month.[7] Sheriff Arpaio said that the mission of this change would benefit both the county jails and incarcerated individuals: contraband could no longer be smuggled in during visitation, and an incarcerated person’s loved ones could have video visits from anywhere with an internet connection. Securus Technologies also touted the change as good for inmates: “The Securus Video Visitation System will allow anyone from anywhere in the world to visit any inmate in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s jails, including those housed at Tent City.”[8] Additionally, jail administrators would be able to monitor all inmate communications with their loved ones.

Securus and other inmate communications companies have been criticized for creating a system that profits from severing an inmate’s connection from the outside world. Prisoner’s rights groups, such as the Prison Policy Institute, have released studies which show that even one in-person visit from a loved one can decrease an inmate’s chances of recidivism by 13% to 25%.[9] The report has also found that the technology is often glitchy and unreliable. In Clark County, Nevada, over half of the 15,000 video chats scheduled in any given month were cancelled due to technological difficulties.[10] Considering that families may pay up to $29.95 for a twenty-minute visit, every minute wasted due to defective technology can exacerbate the emotional and financial stress on an inmate’s loved ones.[11]

The financial costs of video visitation are especially significant given the fact that a majority of families with incarcerated loved ones live near the poverty line.[12] In 2014, the average income for an individual before their incarceration term was $19,185.[13] The Census Bureau has found that fewer than half of households that make below $25,000 have access to a computer with a webcam and high-speed internet.[14] People in Maricopa County who do not have access to a computer, or who are unable to pay $7.99 for an off-site video chat, are allowed to travel to the 4th Ave. Jail or Lower Buckeye Jail for one twenty-minute on-site video chat per week.[15] However, travel to and from those locations may also impose insurmountable barriers for individuals who cannot afford the time or cost to make the trip.

While much research has been done on the emotional and financial costs of video communication systems, there are still questions regarding the qualitative effects of these systems on an inmate’s decision in their criminal case. The Prison Policy Institute found, with only one exception, that inmates in state prisons are still given the benefit of in-person visitation, without even a glass barrier between the inmates and their families.[16] So in Maricopa County and other jurisdictions, an inmate will be able to have a more meaningful connection with their family and friends if they are in state prison, rather than county jail. The national average for the length of felony criminal cases, from indictment to resolution, is 184 days.[17] In the past ten years, as technology has reduced in-person contacts between inmates and the outside world, that length of time may have become even more unbearable. How does this lack of connection to the outside world impact an inmate’s likelihood to take a guilty plea, even if their case is strong? To what extent do individuals decide to take guilty pleas based on the possibility of having more contact with loved ones once they are in prison? As video visitation technology continues to spread throughout jail systems, this is one important point of inquiry which criminal justice researchers should seek to address.

[1] Paulina Pineda, Video chats replace in-person visits at county jails, Arizona Republic (Nov. 6, 2014), http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2014/11/06/mcso-launches-video-visitation-platform/18618403/.

[2] Id.

[3] Securus History, Securus Technologies, https://www.securustechnologies.com/securus-history.

[4] Id.

[5] About Securus, Securus Technologies, https://www.securustechnologies.com/about-us.

[6] Securus Completes Construction of a 600 Video Visitation Terminal Project and Cuts Over System on November 6, 2014 – Inmates Now Receiving Worldwide Video Calls, Securus Technologies, Press Release (Nov. 14, 2014), https://www.securustechnologies.com/-/securus-installs-largest-corrections-video-visitation-project-in-the-united-states-for-maricopa-county-arizona.

[7] Paulina Pineda, Video chats replace in-person visits at county jails, Arizona Republic (Nov. 6, 2014), http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2014/11/06/mcso-launches-video-visitation-platform/18618403/.

[8] Securus Completes Construction of a 600 Video Visitation Terminal Project and Cuts Over System on November 6, 2014 – Inmates Now Receiving Worldwide Video Calls, Securus Technologies, Press Release (Nov. 14, 2014), https://www.securustechnologies.com/-/securus-installs-largest-corrections-video-visitation-project-in-the-united-states-for-maricopa-county-arizona.

[9] Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails, Prison Policy Initiative (Jan. 2015), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/visitation/report.html.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] According to the 2017 Federal Poverty Level Guidelines, the current poverty line for a family of 4 is $24,600. Poverty Guidelines, U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services (Jan. 26, 2017), https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines.

[13] Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf, Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned, Prison Policy Initiative (July 9, 2015), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html.

[14] Thom File and Camille Ryan, Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013, United States Census Bureau (Nov. 2014), https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/acs/acs-28.pdf?eml=gd&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery.

[15] Video Services, Securus Technologies (2017), https://securustech.net/videovisitanywhere/maricopa

[16] Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails Table 2, Prison Policy Initiative (Jan. 2015), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/visitation/report.html.

[17] Brian J. Ostrom and Roger A. Hanson, Efficiency, Timeliness, and Quality: A New Perspective from Nine State Criminal Trial Courts, National Institute of Justice and the State Justice Institute (1999), https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/178403-1.pdf.

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