Video visits at jails praised as efficient, criticized as impersonal
CHICAGO — Marilyn Murphy went to Lake County Jail to see her son. What she saw was an image of him on a television screen.
She visited with her 22-year-old son while she sat in an empty room and he sat in a jail pod in another part of the building.
Murphy and her mother, Shirley Crawford, who came along, touched the young man's face on the screen, as if to feel some physical contact. When their free 30-minute weekly visit was up, the screen abruptly went dark.
"I don't like it," Murphy said of the video system. On the other hand, Crawford said, visiting remotely through a home computer would be "awesome."
"To sit in the privacy of your home and visit a loved one?" she said. "Oh, yes."
That ambivalence reflects the promise and pitfalls of the new technology that is increasingly common at correctional facilities in the Chicago area and nationwide. Video visitation, in which visitors see inmates only on a screen, rather than face to face, was introduced last year in Cook, Kane and Lake counties, and is also offered in McHenry and Will counties.
Illinois' 25 state prisons also will start using virtual visitation in the spring, officials said, and it has become the norm in scores of other correctional facilities across the country. In some places, including Lake County, the technology also enables inmates' loved ones to "visit" from their homes through Skype-like chatting — a service typically provided for a fee by a contractor, with profits often shared with jail operators.
Jailers say the new format offers advantages to visitors, inmates and guards alike. It eliminates the need to escort inmates and visitors through correctional facilities, which cuts down on the use of personnel, increases security and reduces contraband and confrontations among inmates.
Advocates say the big advantage for families is the possibility of remote video visitation: For example, a relative in the Chicago area could talk to an inmate at a Downstate prison for a fraction of what it might cost to travel there.
Research suggests that visitation with family and friends helps improve inmate behavior in custody, reduces repeat offending and eases inmates back into life once they're released.
But critics worry that video will replace face-to-face visits and that providers will subject their captive customers to exorbitant fees.
John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a Chicago-based inmate advocacy organization, welcomed video only as an additional option.
"It's a fundamental right to have meaningful visits with loved ones," he said. "If it's to supplement in-person visits, that's great. I think the danger in video visitation is using it to replace in-person visits."
Maki also said it would be counterproductive to charge high fees for the service, noting that most offenders come from poor families and that high costs could reduce visits overall.
Inmate advocates want to make sure video visits don't turn into another way to financially exploit inmates, as they say telephone call fees have been. For years, advocates protested against what they called price gouging by companies that dominate the phone business and are now expanding into video visits.
In August, after years of protests over inmate phone fees, the Federal Communications Commission issued an order limiting prison phone rates. Two of the companies affected by the order, Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link, both of whom are doing jail video visitation business in Illinois, have filed suit to block it.
The nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative warned that video visits could be used to get around the limits on phone call rates. It urged the FCC to expand its regulation to video, warning against "perverse incentives," in which correctional officials have agreed to shut down in-person visits in return for a share of video fees with contractors. In addition, some jails have begun banning letters from home in favor of postcards and email, which can also require a fee.
Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center, noted that video calls by Internet service Skype are free, and urged that contracts go to those who provide the lowest-cost service rather than pay a percentage of fees to the jail operators — a practice he described as a "kickback."
"They're using this as another revenue stream from people who have the least ability to do anything about it," Wright said.
Correctional officials say they're simply trying to increase convenience and efficiency for jailers, visitors and inmates — though as with any computer network, such systems are subject to glitches, such as bad phone connections and failed connections.
One visitor at Lake County Jail, Brian Holimon, of Third Lake, Ill., was frustrated after he brought his 3-year-old grandson on the boy's birthday to see his father. But, like others, he was told his reservation hadn't registered in the system and was told to reschedule for another day.
Lake County still offers in-person visits, jail superintendent Chief David Wathen said, despite what some visitors believe and a statement to the contrary online. As with most other Chicago-area facilities, in-person visits typically are through impenetrable glass, and jail officials maintain that they had few security problems even before bringing in the new technology.
In Kane County, in-person visits ended this year when video visits began, after a new visitation center was built to complement a new jail.
As a result, corrections Cmdr. Corey Hunger said, jail officials have officers perform duties other than screening visitors, and they don't have to escort visitors or inmates through the jail for visits, because each jail pod has its own monitors in the main living areas.
Though Kane County has no plans for remote visits, officials are looking at hooking up the public defender's office for video access.
"It's a much more efficient way of doing it," Hunger said. "I think it's the way of the future. In the next 20 years, I think everyone will have it."
In Cook County, video visits replaced face-to-face visits last year at a new building in the jail complex, though visits are still conducted the old-fashioned way at older jail buildings. The county paid almost $1 million to have the system installed, and operates it in-house.
Several visitors using the system said they didn't like it. One mother, Jenine Ware, of Chicago, was concerned because her son had an arm in a sling after his arrest, and she wanted to see his whole body, not just his face, to see how he was doing.
However, Karla Maldonado, of Chicago, who came to visit her brother with his mom and two nephews, supported the new system.
"I liked it because the privacy is better," she said, noting the glass partitions between each video monitor. At the face-to-face visitation area, visitors yell to hear because phones and intercoms often don't work. "Now you can hear what he's saying."
The video system saves four or five officers per shift who are no longer needed to escort inmates, and it can accommodate more visitors, Sgt. Joseph Mateja said.
All visits, as with in-person kinds, can be monitored electronically and halted immediately if visitors expose themselves, swear or engage in other inappropriate behavior.
Contracts in the industry generally are exclusive, meaning one contractor has a monopoly over providing phone services, so inmates have no choice over what service they will use.
The revenue generated by video at correctional sites is still a fraction of what the phone market makes. The biggest operator of both systems, Securus, reported on its website that it provides phone service to 2,500 correctional facilities with an estimated 900,000 inmates, compared with providing 81 facilities with video.
Overall last year, Securus projected earning about $375 million in revenue, with a 26 percent profit margin, in a $1 billion growing market.
CEO Richard Smith expects his firm to add video at another 100 sites this year. By monitoring phone and video calls, he said, his company frequently prevents further crime. It also pays commissions that generate $150 million a year for correctional facilities to spend on victims' assistance, inmate health care and other programs.
"It's a good service for all the participants," he said.
Contracts to provide video typically involve giving a company exclusive rights to provide communications services at no cost to taxpayers, while paying a percentage of fees as a commission to the jail.
Lake County's contract, for instance, provides Securus the exclusive right to make money from any inmate communications, including phone calls, video, electronic money transfers, messaging and emails. Securus estimated its cost to install a video system at $260,000, and it gives the county 20 percent of visitor fees for remote video visits. The fee initially was $25.95 for a half-hour video link, though the price was reduced to $10 for the holidays.
County officials could not immediately report how much revenue the visits have generated but said 147 people had set up accounts for remote visits.
Cook, Kane and Will counties offer free on-site, but not remote, video visits.
McHenry County started offering one free on-site video visit per week in 2006, and no longer provides face-to-face visits, Deputy Aimee Knop said. The county recently entered a contract to provide remote visits starting in the spring for 50 cents per minute.
In addition to local defendants, McHenry County holds detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, so almost half the jail population has family members from out of state, who Knop said will particularly benefit from remote visitation.
The biggest video system in Illinois by far is due to arrive in the spring. It would link every state prison, most of which are in rural areas Downstate, to monitors in probation facilities, many of which are in more populated areas where most of the prisoners come from.
The plan follows a two-year pilot program at three prisons that officials said successfully served 1,700 visitors before it ended. Remote video visits in the state prison system are under consideration.
The Illinois Department of Corrections has chosen Global Tel Link to provide the service. Terms have not been finalized, but corrections Assistant Director Gladyse Taylor said officials foresee a fee of about $30 per visit, not to generate revenue but to pay for the service at no cost to taxpayers.
Compared with the cost of driving several hours to a prison and paying for a hotel, the fee could save visitors significant time and hundreds of dollars. Officials also hope to provide email, electronic money transfers, online legal research and even music downloads to inmates' MP3 players, all privileges that can be used to improve prisoner behavior.
Taylor said state officials would never eliminate face-to-face visits, because they know how important that type of visit is.
"We're hoping to increase and make it easier for families to have contact with loved ones," Taylor said. "That's proven to be good for everybody."