State leads way in offering prison video visits

Connecting with people via video has become routine for many personal and professional settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing restrictions have increased the use of new video tools to maintain connections and streamline operations during uncertain times.

Even entities reluctant to adopt modern technologies had to adapt to unexpected circumstances. Prisons serve as a great example where video visitations were quickly established across institutions and new tools had to be explored to ensure safety and mitigate the spread of infectious disease.

The video conferencing industry has existed for several years but has seen a rise in the last year as the pandemic drove the need for it up dramatically. Prisons swiftly embraced video conferencing tools and started offering video visits. Several private companies initiated the implementation and operation of new video systems, starting as pilot programs and quickly expanding to a number of institutions as a tool in communication and visitation from behind the wall.

Prison video visits are often not free and can be costly to inmates and their families. This creates an additional financial toll on an already impoverished population. Video visitation systems costs are completely unregulated but correctional institutions have control over determining rates and fees for online visits.

Many prisons contract with major correctional technology companies that are profit-driven and exploit the prison market, while inmates do not have much choice other than to accept this bad bargain or lose connections with family.

Video visitations can be a tremendously beneficial tool for inmates if they are used as a supplement to in-person visits. In many cases, in-person visits are not possible due to emergency situations or geographical barriers, and video visits can fill the gap. Video visits foster communication with the outside world, reinforce family connections, and support reentry planning.

One problem is the monopoly that many correctional technology companies have in different prisons across the country where they offer video visit solutions. Prisons, rather than allow competition from mainstream video conferencing tools such as Skype, Zoom, or Cisco Webex Meetings, use the platforms connected to their correctional technology arrangements.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect is that in many correctional institutions, expensive and unreliable video visits have completely replaced in-person visits. Video visitations can be only truly effective if they are offered at no cost to the inmate and provided in addition to in-person visits.

Although most prisons utilize the system of their correctional technology providers, there are examples of facilities that utilize different means, such as the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Pennsylvania prisons have been conducting free video visits through Zoom since the pandemic and related lockdowns started in the United States. Besides video visits, PADOC also offered free emails, phone calls, and envelopes for inmates to stay connected to friends and family despite the suspended in-person visitations.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has been proactive and looked for ways to enhance the current video visitation system, especially since Zoom visits required the assistance of correctional staff. The agency consequently implemented a new video platform with an independent scheduling option. PADOC has announced that free video visits will stay even after the pandemic.

Pennsylvania’s adoption and expansion of its video visitation system has shown that there are measures prisons can take to respond to real time situations and develop even more effective ways of connectivity that will impact inmates and their loved ones long after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

The COVID-19 pandemic disconnected prisons from the outside world but technological tools like video conferencing platforms allowed for reconnection. Not only have these platforms proved to be feasible for the prison environment, but they are also more affordable.

More prisons should reconsider utilizing video conferencing tools in addition to in-person visits to allow inmates to stay connected to their communities and promote the right to communicate with courts, attorneys, and doctors. Video visits can serve as prevention and mitigation efforts for public health outbreaks while fostering emotional support from loved ones, which can have a positive impact on reentry and community well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Actively promoting reliable modern technological tools that are widely utilized outside prisons can help make re-entry more successful while generating potential savings for states and their taxpayers.

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