Video-visitation technology has been around for two decades but only recently has it turned into a money maker for private firms and local governments.
A 384-bed jail opened in Lancaster, Oh., this summer. It has high-tech security gadgetry, up-to-date living areas, and a controversial innovation that in recent years has spread across the country: video visitation. Visitors use a telephone-like handset, a camera, and a screen to communicate with an inmate using a similar setup elsewhere in the jail, reports The Atlantic. The two parties never see each other in person even when a visitor is physically inside the jail complex. Though video-visitation technology was first used in jails and prisons about 20 years ago, it was slow to catch on because the operations were clunky and the upkeep a hassle. Over the past decade, instead of purchasing and having a contractor install a system the jail or prison would own, facilities have outsourced the systems to corporations, often as part of a package that includes phone services. As of 2014, according to a report by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, over 500 jails and prisons in 43 states had adopted video visitation.
An unknown number of those 500-plus facilities have also adopted “remote” video visitation, something akin to Skype, in which a “visitor” can communicate with an inmate via a computer, from any location. Unlike the in-facility video visitation systems, these remote setups come with charges of up to a dollar per minute, not counting account-deposit fees and set-up charges—expenses that can be burdensome for the often-poor families of inmates. Such systems make jailers—whether local governments or private corporations—the de-facto business partners of the companies, while enriching private-equity firms and their investors. “Video visitation is a link in the whole system that sees inmates as a revenue opportunity,” says Daniel Hatcher, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and the author of The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens. “It’s part of a larger system that sees the broader vulnerable family as a revenue opportunity, too.”