In a new report from the Vera Institute, researchers studied more than nine thousand people incarcerated by the Washington State prison system and found that the small portion who used video visitation regularly saw an increase in in-person visits and strengthened relationships with loved ones. But, the report cautions, “when in-person visits are scrapped in favor of video visits, agencies are likely doing more harm than good.”
The findings come as the Durham County Detention Facility plans to implement video visitation this fall. Initially, visitors will have to use video kiosks in the jail lobby to utilize the technology. The Durham County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, says “there are no plans to remove in-person visitation.” Still, critics point to a 2015 report by the Prison Policy Institute that found 74 percent of jails with video visitation cut in-person visits.
Visitors to the Washington prisons studied by the Vera Institute can use either video kiosks at the prisons or a home computer. The Sheriff’s Office hasn’t decided if it will expand its pilot program to include remote video visitation. Sheriff Mike Andrews says he has no plans to assess a fee for video visits using monitors at the Durham jail. In prisons reviewed by the Vera Institute, video calls are $12.95 for a thirty minutes.
The Vera report suggests that video visitation can be a “powerful supplement to prison life” and that technology is only being “marginally” utilized by jails and prisons and isn’t reaching those who need the service most.
“Far from enjoying all the benefits that modern technology has to offer, however, many families have suffered from its arrival,” the report says. “In some local jails, video visits have been brought in to replace in-person visits, which have been eliminated entirely. And, in some cases, users have been required to travel to the jail to conduct the video visit, thus negating one of the most positive aspects of video calls—the ability to conduct them from anywhere with an Internet connection.”
What’s clear in the report is a need for more visitation overall, which studies have shown to reduce a person’s chances of reoffending after being released. People who were less likely to receive video visits, including older people and those with mental health needs, were also less likely to be visited in person.
According to the report, 45 percent of detainees studied received no in-person visits in a year. For every mile from home a person was incarcerated, the number of in-person visits they received decreased by 1 percent. Those who regularly utilized video visitation saw a 40 percent increase in in-person visits.
While some interviewees found video visits stressful both for them and loved ones who had to travel long distances, others said the service made it easier to have regular visits, especially with young children.
“The users of the service explained that video visits provided a safe space for them to maintain and strengthen their relationships with people in the community,” the report says.
However, users also reported high rates of technical problems with the service and trouble paying the fees to use it. The report cited these as potential reasons why detainees only received an average of 3.6 video calls per year.
“One thing that we know for certain, however, is that technology continues to evolve,” wrote researcher Léon Digard “… Through all of these changes, more needs to be done to ensure that technology is democratized in similar ways within custodial settings as it has been on the outside—available to everyone, unhampered by poor quality and high costs. At the same time, the right to in-person visits must not only be fiercely safeguarded, it should also be bolstered for the benefit of all people, both inside and outside of prison.”