Jail Calls Make Revenue

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Wonderful article by Brian Alexander of The Atlantic claims that private companies have much to gain from installing and maintaining video technology connecting inmates with visitors.

VIDEO CHAT TECHNOLOGY

Over the past decade, many prisons  have outsourced video chat the systems to private 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 quite burdensome for the often-poor families of inmates.

Despite the expense, however, the benefits cannot be ignored. Many visitors may conclude that driving to the jail is a waste of time and gas, and opt to pay. And jailers argue that video visitation has obvious security advantages and improves staff efficiency, as deputies don’t have to remove a prisoner from a housing unit or check visitors in.

Additionally, the revenues cannot be ignored either. Video chat systems make jailers—whether local governments or private corporations—the de-facto business partners of the companies, while enriching private-equity firms (which own many video-visitation providers) 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.”

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A LUCRATIVE BUSINESS
Reporter Brian Alexander says that inmate-communication services have proven to be a very lucrative business, and expensive phone charges borne by the families of prisoners have stoked controversy for years. In response, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped per-minute rates in 2015. Prison-telecom companies sued. President Trump’s appointee to head the FCC, Ajit Pai, dropped the FCC’s defense of the rate-cap rules, and, in June, a court struck them down. Even so, the phone charges became a scandal and some in Congress vowed to take action. Administrators began to feel queasy about the rates. 
The procedural hurdles and the outright bans on in-person visitation seem designed to nudge visitors to stay home and visit remotely. This not only benefits providers, but jails, prisons, and local jurisdictions too, which can use income from company commissions or profit-sharing to benefit the facility, a county’s general fund, or some other local cause. For example, the Prison Policy Initiative uncovered a contract between Securus and Maricopa County, Arizona, that provided for a 10 percent commission to the county of gross monthly revenues, but only if the number of paid video visits reached at least 8,000 for that month. If Securus grossed $2.6 million or more, the county’s percentage rose to 20 percent.

VIDEO VISITATION NO REPLACEMENT FOR IN-PERSON VISITS.

Alexander emphasizes that video visitation is no replacement for in-person visits. As an oft-cited Minnesota Department of Corrections study from 2011 showed, “prison visitation can significantly improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community. Any visit reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations.” Also, a report by the National Institute of Corrections (part of the U.S. Department of Justice) similarly concluded that video visitation “cannot replicate seeing someone in-person, and it is critical for a young child to visit his or her incarcerated parent in person to establish a secure attachment.”

INVESTORS ARE PIQUED

Meanwhile, because the largest inmate telecom-and-video providers generate a healthy flow of cash, they’ve attracted the interest of private equity, or PE. The fees that flow upward from prisoners and their families find their way to these firms and their investors. In 2013, for example, Global Tel Link, another major inmate phone-and-video provider, borrowed $885 million to fund dividend recapitalizations at the behest of its PE sponsor, American Securities; that debt would be paid back with the proceeds from inmate calls and video visitations.

VIDEO CHAT: GOOD OR BAD?

Alexander says that even a critic like Hatcher, the author and law professor, believes that video visitation has the potential for good. Such a service can complement in-person visits. It could allow an inmate to see a child’s school performance. It could substitute for an in-person visit when weather makes travel to a jail or prison hazardous. But Hatcher fears that it’s being used to restrict contact and drain money from people who are often already poor.