Supporting Reentry through Video Visitation

A recent report by the Pew Research Center found that recidivism rates have remained largely stable, based on a comparison of inmates released from prison in 1999 and 2004. This is a discouraging statistic, given that reducing recidivism is integral to corrections’ core mission to protect the public.

One cannot say that correctional agencies have not made their best efforts to address the problem. On the contrary, most have been committed to risk reduction for some time.

The report points to several factors proven to work, such as risk assessment, re-entry planning and post-release supervision. Research also suggests there is a direct correlation between strong family support and successful re-entry. The frequency and quality of communication play a significant role in those relationships.

As agencies continue to grapple with implementing evidence-based strategies, there are ways to maximize technology to improve programs known to decrease the probability of recidivism.

One such technology, video visitation, supports that mission, improves security, increases operational and staff resource efficiencies, and saves money. It has become more sophisticated over time and is in place at a number of agencies, particularly county systems. One needs only to walk the floor at ACA to see the multitude of systems to choose from. In fact, new facilities are often designed and constructed to accommodate the technology. It has grown in popularity because it makes sense.

Nowadays, people use Skype, GoTo Meeting and other Web-based video programs to stay in contact. Video visitation technology is often inexpensive or free and addresses both sides of the coin: improving family relationships and addressing security concerns associated with traditional visits.

Given their volume, limited space and resources, facilities can only allow a limited number of weekly visits per inmate. While video visitation does not replace in-person visits, it allows inmates to have additional face time with their loved ones. When family cannot come to the facility at all, video visitation facilitates conversations that could not otherwise occur.

Not only are traditional visits an operational challenge for facilities, families often struggle to visit in person if they live a long way from the prison. Many prisons are in rural, isolated settings, and families sometimes travel great distances only to encounter lockdowns or canceled visits. Visiting may also be difficult for those who are poor, disabled, ill, or elderly persons may not be physically able to visit. Visitors must undergo required security procedures and searches, which may be uncomfortable and embarrassing for some.

With video visitation, however, family members avoid these hardships, long waits and restrictions.

Another important consideration is the detrimental impact of prison visitation on children. While many inmates do not want them inside the prison, they want to see and maintain a relationship with them. Video visitation can reduce or eliminate children’s exposure to a prison environment that may desensitize them to incarceration. Many video visitation stations have the appearance of a more family-friendly setting that is less intimidating to young children and may allow them to see their parent in a more positive light.

Looking beyond family issues, consideration should be given to how video visitation can promote programmatic needs and reentry planning. Inmates can maintain other forms of positive community relationships such as faith-based and substance-abuse sponsorship after release. Interviews for placement in treatment facilities, halfway houses, social services and jobs can also be easily accommodated through video visitation. In some cases, inmates cannot be accepted into programs without an interview. If providers are not willing to come to the institution, those re-entry services are not available to them. Additionally, video visitation makes it easy to communicate with attorneys, child protective services, parole, probation and other agencies.

There are significant security benefits to video visitation. Eliminating direct contact greatly reduces public traffic into and out of the prison and makes the facility safer for staff, inmates and visitors. At sites that transport inmates outside the secure perimeter to the visiting area, video visitation reduces security risks like inmates escaping. Use of the equipment in housing units cuts back on mass internal movement and the potential for fights and disturbances. Most of all, the technology cuts back on the risk of drugs, cell phones, escape paraphernalia, money and other contraband being passed from visitors to prisoners.

The technology provides a centralized database for preapproval and scheduling. Unlike paper processes or facility specific tracking, cross-referencing reduces the potential of an individual being approved to visit multiple inmates at facilities. Finally, video visitation has monitoring and investigative benefits.

The ability to play back both the video and audio of the visit allows for better intelligence gathering than cameras focused on the entire visiting room. Since audio is not available with a traditional visit, it is far more difficult to figure out what occurred or was discussed.
Because video visitation programs reduce the number of in-person visits at the facility, it results in significant staff resource savings and operational efficiencies. Fewer staff members are needed to manage visits and deal with the sometimes chaotic process associated with high-volume visiting periods.

There are fewer visitors to process and search and less visiting room coverage is needed. Fewer inmates entering and exiting the visiting room need to be searched. Transportation is reduced. Inmates are responsible for scheduling their own visits, alleviating staff from this duty. When equipment is installed in housing units, less schedule coordination is needed to separate inmate enemies. Extra steps to review applications to approve infants to visit are reduced. All of these efficiencies free up officers time for more critical tasks and may also reduce overtime.

On-site and remote video visitation programs are available. In both cases, inmate stations consisting of specially constructed units, computers or kiosks are placed in cells, day rooms or a separate visiting location within the facility. For visitors, on-site video visitation is conducted in a central location in the facility or on the grounds. Remote video visitation can be set up at central locations, such as churches, police stations, sheriff and parole offices, other prisons and the Salvation Army. One interesting method is a bus outfitted with stations that travels to specific locations on scheduled dates so visitors can access the equipment. Another form of remote visitation is via the visitor’s personal home computer. The Internet-based program is accessed using Skype, a webcam or similar tool.

As with any technology, the costs must be considered. Agencies vary on their approaches to funding video visitation. Some fund it through federal or state grants if it does not raise money. Other facilities charge people to use it to offset constrained budgets. Under this model, inmates may be charged a fee per minute and purchase credits through the commissary. Alternatively, visitors can be charged a fee per minute, per visit, by time slots or by type of visit.

One interesting method is to charge private product or service providers to run ads on the units. Some agencies may opt for a combination of revenue-neutral and revenue-generating services. The standard number of visits allowed for an inmate would be at no charge; however, any visits beyond that would require service fee. Another possibility is to provide on-site visits for free, but charge for visits conducted at more convenient remote locations in the community or at home.

As video visitation becomes more prevalent within the correctional industry, new prisons will account for it by integrating the equipment and reducing the space of visiting areas. It seems that video visitation is the wave of the future, both as a feature of prison design and a cost-effective technology to help corrections implement programs that help inmates reintegrate into society.