A new system called "video visitation" is replacing in-person jail visits with glitchy, expensive Skype-like video calls. It's inhumane, dystopian and actually increases in-prison violence — but god, it makes money.
The only way Lauren Johnson could see Ashika Renae Coleman at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle, Texas, was via video conference from seven miles away in Austin.
Coleman and Johnson had met in 2012 in a rehabilitation program that tries to build trust and community among incarcerated women through theater. Both had been to prison for drug-related offenses.
Johnson got out in 2011. She became an activist helping former inmates like herself re-enter society. Coleman had similarly altruistic ambitions when she was released, and planned to create a sober house for the formerly incarcerated. But after returning to a husband still suffering from addiction, she relapsed and ended up back in Travis County.
Johnson logged into the Securus Technologies website — a Skype-like communication system used by the Travis County jail — on her PC laptop. But the video player didn't have the latest version of Java. When Johnson installed it, the system insisted she had not. So Johnson tried another laptop — a MacBook this time. Java was working this time, Flash was not.
Thinking the browser might be the problem, Johnson tried launching the video player in Chrome, then switched to Safari before giving up and using the Securus Android app on her phone.
Finally, Coleman's face appeared on screen — barely. For the entire call, a glitch in the system caused Coleman's image to look like a tangle of window blinds. Johnson wanted to talk to Coleman about her case, but through most of the call, she simply repeated, "Hello — can you hear me now?" Johnson was charged $10 for the video visit, even after cutting it a few minutes short of the 20-minute maximum.
All the while, Coleman waited alone in jail at a computer terminal. She had no other option. To see anyone but a prison guard, the only way was through a video feed.
Travis County ended all in-person visitations in May 2013, leaving video visitation as the exclusive method for people on the outside to communicate with the incarcerated. But Travis County is only on the leading edge of a new technological trend that threatens to abolish in-person visitation across the country. Over 600 prisons in 46 states have some sort of video visitation system, and every year, more of those facilities do away with in-person visitation.
Anticipating the arrival of friends and family, making eye contact, holding a child's hand — these are the experiences and memories that give someone the resilience they need to make it in prison. A visit can alleviate the suffering that comes cold confinement and the brutality of unpredictable violence that erupts between inmates.
Once people leave prison and return to society, their ability to thrive depends on the support network they left behind when they were incarcerated. In-person visits keep those relationships alive in a way that speaking through a flickering monitor does not.
"It's just too much frustration to come down here, wait for an hour and then only get 25 minutes for a not-so-good call," Coleman said when the connection improved for a moment. "I think the hassle is why people don't visit me as much anymore."
Extorting inmates' families is big business
You may have heard of the prison industrial complex, but the companies that provide corrections facilities with their communications technologies are an industrial complex all their own. Three companies dominate the prison comms business: Securus, Telmate and Global Tel Link, also called GTL — the Verizon, AT&T and Sprint of jails.
Long before video visitation existed, prison phone calls were the bread and butter of these companies. With exclusive contracts protecting them from competition, the trio of prison telecom giants ratcheted up the prices until a single phone call could cost upward of $14 a minute.
For the families of the 2.3 million incarcerated Americans nationwide, crippling costs are part and parcel of supporting a loved one in jail. A sweeping survey of families by the Ella Baker Center showed that more than 1 in 3 families goes into debt just to cover the costs of keeping in touch with their loved one. Of everyone pouring money into those systems, 87% are women.
These fees are the linchpin in an elaborate racket between telecommunications providers, prisons and local governments. The business model for the three major prison telecoms is built around long-term contracts that establish them as the sole provider in a given county or state. In order to win these contracts, the major companies promise each county or state "site commissions" — a euphemism for kickbacks. These deals are lucrative: In Los Angeles County, for example, it brings in a baseline, contractual guarantee of $15 million a year. In some counties, this money trickles back down to the prisons.
After decades of abuse, the Federal Communications Commission voted in October to cap phone rates at 11 cents per minute. GTL and Securus filed suit against the FCC. The telecoms argue the FCC has overstepped its legal authority in imposing the rate cap and that the lost revenue will leave the companies unable to fulfill their contractual obligation to pay the counties. The regulations are on hold while the FCC fights for the price caps to take hold.
If the FCC stops the telecoms from gouging families for phone fees, the next frontier is, well, any other service those companies provide. One of those lucrative new products is prison email, in which families are charged for digital "stamps." The other is video visitation.
The FCC is already looking to regulate other kinds of communication, but it could be months, even years, before it gets around to addressing digital communication. So while the FCC lumbers toward capping phone costs, the prison telecoms can get the same money from innocent families using systems the FCC hasn't gotten around to regulating yet.
"This is a fertile ground for abuse, since the FCC is taking modes of communications one by one, rather than [with] comprehensive, all-at-once policy," Aleks Kajstura, legal director of the Prison Policy Institute, told Mic.
Prisons have their own incentive. Officials across the country, including Brandon Wood of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, argue that visitation is a privilege and not a right — and that visitations are a security risk.
But the true incentive is keeping costs low. Video visitation requires fewer full-time prison staff members, so if the private contractors are willing to run the visitation system themselves, it's a pretty sweet deal for counties. Especially when those contractors are paying their way in.
The case for visitation
Jorge Renaud is notorious to prison officials in Texas as a troublemaker — not for his three convictions for burglary and robbery, but as a writer and editor of the Echo, Texas' newspaper by and for the incarcerated. During his 27 years in prison, he wrote about everything from gang wars and AIDS to incarcerated mothers and neglectful guards — anti-establishment writing that embarrassed prison officials.
At the time, he took the prison administration to task for preventing some inmates from having physical contact with visitors, forcing them to see their loved ones through a glass panel instead. He studied philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Michel de Montaigne, reading "the Chicano poets" and writing a 2002 book on navigating prison, Behind the Walls: A Guide for Families and Friends of Texas Prison Inmates.
During Renaud's time behind bars, visits from his wife and daughter served as a lifeline while awaiting parole, which finally came in 2008.
"The incredible anticipation and fulfillment of knowing they care enough to come can be the difference between you comporting with the rules, and being more human and aware and knowing the consequences of your actions and being willing to moderate and understand them," he said.
In 2014, Renaud was arrested for drinking and driving, and because he had violated the conditions of his parole, he ended up in jail once more — perhaps briefly, perhaps for the rest of his life.
But this time, no one could visit him. During the time Renaud was free, Travis County had quietly stopped in-person visitation, replacing it with Securus Technologies' video visitation system. His then-girlfriend Jaynna Sims was managing his affairs on the outside, but he could never meet with her, never look her in the eye, never hold her hand.
There were two options for Renaud and Sims to see each other: Sims could come down to the jail twice a week for a 20-minute video session for free. Or she could stay at home, risk it on her own computer and pay $10 for 20 minutes. Paid video visits were, of course, unlimited.
Sims said she racked up hundreds of dollars in fees a month, and when connection would cut out, she'd call up Securus' customer service to complain. It rarely helped; one time, customer service just hung up on her. (We reached out to both Securus and representatives of Securus-owned companies for comment on this story. Securus never responded.)
Anyone with a smartphone knows the road rage-like frustration of trying to speak through a bad connection. Imagine struggling through an expensive conversation in the midst of a crisis, like an accident or medical emergency; imagine being unable to reach the only people providing you a little bit of normalcy.
"There's an incredible despair and anger at this system, this fucking screen in front of you that wavers in and out," Renaud said.
Renaud spent three months in jail before he pled guilty to a diminished charge of reckless driving. Once he got out, Renaud got in touch with Bob Libal and Kymberlie Quong Charles at Austin's Grassroots Leadership, a leading network of advocates in the fight against prison profiteering. He recounted to them his outrage at the profiteering and exploitation — the hopelessness of fighting with faulty technology in order to reach the people he needed most.
So Libal and Quong Charles told Renaud, the notorious prison scribe, to put pen to paper again, and in a few short months, Renaud churned out the earliest damning report of the effects of video visitation systems on jail populations to marshal the local advocates and legislators to restore in-person visitation to Travis County.
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.
After the report came out in October 2014, Renaud worked with Quong Charles and Johnson to push for legislation that would make sure every jail in Texas kept some sort of in-person visitation. Working with Dallas Rep. Eric Johnson, they drafted HB 549, a bill establishing an inmate's right to a bare minimum of two 20-minute visitations per week. Only two months later, the law was introduced in the Texas House of Representatives.
When Sarah Eckhardt walked out of a Travis County commissioners' hearing in October 2012, she was grateful that video visitation was on its way to Travis County. A vote was called to decide whether to introduce video visitation to the Travis County Correctional Complex. Eckhart, a county commissioner at the time, thought that if only she'd had video visitation when her nephew was incarcerated in California, she'd be able to visit him any time from Texas.
During the meeting, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe asked Darren Long, the major of corrections who led the charge to bring video visitation to the jail, if video would serve as a supplement or a substitute to in-person visitation. Long assured there would be no change in policy. The commissioners court voted in favor of the proposal, at ease that in-person visitation was there to stay.
Two years later, in 2014, Eckhardt got a call from Grassroots Leadership's Libal, who told her Travis County had switched over to video visitation entirely. She told him he most certainly was mistaken.
"Go look at the website," Libal said.
She navigated to the prison's visitation policy, which said that the only way to visit someone in jail was through video conference. The prison had done away with in-person visitation a year prior, and had just finalized a new contract with Securus that wasn't up for negotiation until 2015.
She called Long, reminding him he had promised there'd be no change in policy. "Darren, you said nothing was going to change," Eckhardt recalled saying. "He said, 'Well that's true, nothing did change — we'd already made that policy determination.'" In other words, when commissioners had asked for assurance that in-person visitation would remain, Long omitted the key fact that prison officials had already settled on getting rid of in-person visitation.
A native Texan whose father served as a U.S. congressman for 14 years, Eckhardt had just won a landslide election to take on Biscoe's soon-to-be vacant seat, becoming the first woman to serve as Travis County judge.
"I put it on my agenda that if [in-person visitation] wasn't reinstated while it was off the dais, I would make sure it was reinstated once I was back on," she said in her Austin office.
Eckhardt found an ally in Sally Hernandez, a Travis County constable running for sheriff. At the forefront of Hernandez's political platform was progressive reform to the sheriff's office, with the restoration of in-person visitation as a key issue.
"Just doing only video visitations, to me, is inhumane," Hernandez said. "If you're talking about a plea bargain, or you haven't seen your child, it has an emotional impact. It doesn't help an inmate make wise decisions, or have contact and the support of their family."
Hernandez won the Democratic primary in March, pledging to work with Eckhardt to protect the right to in-person visitation. In Austin's electoral history, the Democratic nominee is the typical shoo-in, so it's likely that come next year, Hernandez will be sheriff of Travis County.
The power and politics to govern these contracts will be in the hands of a county judge and, soon, a sheriff who believe in-person visitation is vital.
The gathering storm
HB 549 passed in the Texas House and Senate in May 2015. When Gov. Greg Abbott failed to sign or veto the law within the 20-day window set forth in the Texas Constitution, it became law by default, ensuring that people in hundreds of county jails across the state would be entitled to two, live in-person visitations a week.
But Travis County wasn't going to get in-person visitation back.
At least 22 of Texas' 254 counties fought and won an exemption to the new rules, claiming that they'd already dedicated significant resources to going full-video. Under the exemption, any county that had "incurred significant design, engineering or construction costs" in switching to video-only visitation by Sept. 1 didn't have to keep in-person visitation. But one thing advocates for in-person visitation had failed to do was narrowly define what "significant cost" meant.
This gave counties months to incur costs that could help an exemption. In San Antonio, for example, the county committed $6 million to a new video visitation center despite the protestations of families and activists, and won an exemption. Without a clear definition, any county that spent more than nothing was able to make a case for an exemption.
Travis County was headed for the same fate as San Antonio, until Judge Sarah Eckhardt was tipped off to a caveat. Travis County hadn't incurred any significant costs at all for setting up video visitation. All of the systems had been paid for by Securus Technologies.
On April 19, in-person visitation was restored to Travis County.
HB 549 established an incarcerated person's right to in-person visits in Texas' county jails — at least for now.
But Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, is worried that upcoming hearings in the state senate could still jeopardize the bill in the future.
"They'll have a hearing, people will be called to the Capitol and given the opportunity to testify, and the committee would issue recommendations based on what they've heard," Smith said over the phone. "Right now, most counties are safe, but I take nothing for granted."
Other states have begun their battle. In California, where 11 counties have either exclusively switched over to video visitation or are well on the way, state senators have begun work on SB 1157, a bill that would prevent county jails and private institutions from doing away with in-person visits.
But this is the beginning of a tech-driven shift in the way the prison telecoms do business, and none of the other 40 states that have introduced some kind of video visitation has anything as comprehensive as Texas' bill. Securus already has its hands in 3,400 corrections facilities in 48 states, and is constantly renegotiating its contracts.
But Jaynna Sims, who'd supported Jorge Renaud while he was hidden for three months behind video visitation, still knows the trauma inflicted by a system she says "never gives you a break," even with the battle behind her.
"People get out eventually, and they're coming back into the community," Sims said. "If we want to make life as miserable as possible and make sure they don't have growth or healing in jail, we can keep doing what we're doing. But if we don't want them to be worse off when they come back, we have to care about how we treat them in prisons and jails."
That trauma is felt anywhere families are trying to rehabilitate their loved ones — not reaching for hands through prison bars, but with faint voices through fading bars of failing reception, struggling to hold on to the connection.
"The opportunity to sit face to face and just have a personal connection is the one reprieve you get in all of this," Sims said. "But once you take away in-person visitation, you don't have that. It's like the system keeps finding ways to victimize people. And how can that, in any way, heal an individual, or a community?"
Coleman, who Johnson only saw through a glitchy screen, took a deal for two years in prison. She hasn't been assigned to a facility yet, but Johnson promised Coleman she'd drive to visit, either an hour and a half away at Linda Woodman State Jail, or three hours to Lucile Plane in Dayton, Texas. Both facilities, for now, still have in-person visitation.
The above video clipswere taken with permission from the upcoming documentary (In)securus Technology: An Assault on Prisoner Rights, directed by Matthew Gossage for Grassroots Leadership.
Correction: May 6, 2016
Correction: Sept. 6, 2016