Technology like Facetime and Skype has made talking face-to-face over long distances as easy as opening an app. Now even jails are offering video calls to connect inmates and their families. But some civil liberties groups say the new technology shouldn’t replace in-person visits.
Before this year, if you wanted to visit an inmate in the Tulare County Jail, you would go to the facility, sit on opposite sides of a glass partition, and speak through a phone.
Now, thanks to a new technology called video visitation, inmates can connect with their families anywhere in the country, over the internet. People can pay for remote access to the system over their personal computer and smartphone, or get free access at two county-owned facilities.
Captain Tim Fosnaugh with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office says the remote video stations are filled with technology that would be familiar to many people. “[It's] kind of like screens that are in cars where kids can watch movies. And they have a headset where you can listen on the other end,” says Fosnaugh.
Tulare County’s video visitation service is run by a company called Global Tel*Link. Visitors make an account through the company’s website and set a date and time to talk. If it’s available, the video call is scheduled with the jail, and visitors can talk for up to an hour with their loved ones.
The technology is becoming increasingly popular at jails across the state. Of California’s 58 counties, 28 currently offer video visitation in at least one of their jail facilities, including Fresno, Kings, Madera and Merced. Tulare just started using the system in January.
With visiting stations at two facilities in the county, and more planned, Fosnaugh says that families who use the service “don’t have to drive as far to visit a loved one.” Instead of driving across the county to where their loved one is housed, they can visit from the station nearest to them.
Civil liberties groups argue that while the technology is convenient, in some cases, it comes with a big drawback. In Tulare, Kings and Madera counties, jails have completely eliminated traditional in-person visitation. When Tulare County started using video visitation, they stopped offering in-person visits.
Bernadette Rabuy, a senior policy analyst with the Prison Policy Initiative, says video visitation doesn’t provide the same emotional connection between inmates and family members that comes from face-to-face, real life interactions.
“Eye contact was basically impossible,” Rabuy says about video visits, “which makes it really difficult to really establish a connection and really build a relationship with other people and with your loved one.”
Using the service from home may be convenient but it’s also costly. The rates for Tulare County are set by Global Tel*Link, meaning a 20 minute call costs $15. An hour-long call would cost $45. Rabuy says many families can’t afford that, forcing them to drive to one of the county facilities to use the service.
“A family member would take the same time, same gas expenses, go to the jail,” says Rabuy. “But now instead of getting to have an in-person visit, they would visit from a computer screen, even though they’re in the same building or in the next building over from their incarcerated loved ones.”
Lizzie Buchen, a legislative advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union, says the technology also doesn’t always work right. Delays in audio, badly positioned cameras, and low quality images can ruin the opportunity to talk to loved ones.
“Even if they were to upgrade the technology, it would still not compare to an in-person visit,” Buchen says. “It makes a huge impact on that ability to have an intimate conversation, on their ability to have an emotional connection, and these are the types of connections that are so important when someone is removed from your life and incarcerated.”
We reached out to Global Tel*Link to ask about the cost and the technological issues, but they did not respond to our request for comment.
The concerns from civil liberties groups have also drawn the attention of leaders in Sacramento.
Last year, both Rabuy and Buchen worked with California State Senator Holly Mitchell to draft a bill that would have prohibited jails from eliminating in-person visits, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Brown.
In February, the California Board of State and Community Corrections approved a regulation that requires all jails to have space for an in-person visit.
However, facilities already using video visitation and no longer offering in-person visits are exempt. Which means Tulare County Jails, along with Kings and Madera Counties, still don’t have to offer in-person visits.
Captain Fosnaugh says that despite mixed responses, he sees the new system as a good thing.
“In the old days, prior visitation was limited to a certain amount of people,” Fosnaugh says. “They got an hour free visit, the inmate, but every half hour there’s only two allowed to come visit them. So it would have to be broken up in half hour increments.”
He says the old system also only allowed visitation on weekends. The new system is more flexible.
“It’s Monday through Sunday, and it starts roughly at 8 in the morning and runs to 10 at night. So it enhances the ability for our inmates to speak to their loved ones and vice versa.”
Fosnaugh also says that the technology makes for a safer facility, since inmates don’t have to be moved for their visits. This technology, according to Fosnaugh, is the future, and he doesn’t see it going away anytime soon.
The county is planning on building two new jail facilities. Both will only provide space for video visitation.