The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has really trumpeted its new video-visitation system for jail inmates, but such systems are heavily criticized in a new report from incarceration policy researchers.
According to a national look at the systems by the Prison Policy Initiative, this "technology is poorly designed, does not work well, and makes a trying time for families even more challenging."
MCSO just recently rolled out the video systems that replace in-person jail visits, as part of a contract with a company called Securus Technologies.
"There have been a lot of complaints about Securus," Prison Policy Initiative researcher Bernadette Rabuy tells New Times. "We tried ourselves to do a Securus video visit, and it wouldn't work for some reason."
The technology is advertised as a way to cut down on contraband, and as a way for authorities to listen in on an inmate's conversations with people on the outside. It also allows families from far away to have some sort of contact with a person who's incarcerated.
It's also a bit of a revenue generator. According to the Securus contract with Maricopa County, the company installed the equipment for free, but the Sheriff's Office gets a 10 percent cut of the monthly gross revenue, if there are a minimum of 8,000 paid visits per month. Once this company makes more than about $2.6 million in gross revenue, MCSO's cut increases to 20 percent per month.
A 20-minute chat from any location with an Internet connection costs about $13, although there are video terminals installed in the Lower Buckeye Jail and Fourth Avenue Jail. There, according to the contract, inmates are allowed to get three free visits per week, before visits have to pay up. Rabuy pointed out that the Sheriff's Office itself has changed this policy, and according to its website, inmates get only one free visit a week.
This report from the Prison Policy Initiative lays out a laundry-list of complaints about the 500 such systems installed nationwide.
Aside from being worse for families who'd actually like to visit an incarcerated person, there are general technological problems, the researchers found. That includes poor families not being able to afford the Internet speeds, computer, and webcam capable of holding a video visitation with an inmate, plus the fees of initiating a call. Then there are the actual problems with the technology itself, like several reports of connectivity issues, or poor camera placement.
Data collected from the researchers in Travis County, Texas, seems to show that price really is a huge problem, as inmates and their families used the service much less as the price increased.
The Prison Policy Initiative report essentially argues that regulations are necessary to prevent such companies from imposing big fees, or to keep these corporations from dictating the in-person visitation policies of counties and states.
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