Worlds Apart

Video-only “visitation” shrouds the reality of life in custody

Laura’s younger brother whom I’ll call John, age 26, had been addicted to heroin for a while. In December he was arrested for burglary. He had been arrested before, spending a night or two in jail, but this was the first time he couldn’t get out. His bond was set at $10,000 cash only.

That’s how Laura learned about “My Tech Friends,” a company that sells technology to jails and prisons for use in commissaries, phone calls, and remote video visitation — the only way she can communicate with her brother while he waits in Clark County Jail, Indiana. While the jail doesn’t technically disallow in-person visits to all inmates, John says he’s never heard of anyone having one. Like most people in jail, he’s only stuck there because his family can’t afford the bail while he waits for his trial. In John’s case, that could take quite a while. He does have a lawyer — a public defender, whom he hopes is good. But it’s not like he’s ever met him, or even talked to him on the phone. His lawyer has communicated with him by letter a few times in the nine months he’s been in the jail so far.

Laura and John’s parents, who live 40 minutes away, visit weekly. But they’re only allowed to see him over video chat from a separate room at the facility. At Clark County, video visitation is free if you go to the jail; you can chat remotely, from home or wherever you have an internet connection, but you’re charged $5 per 15 minutes. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy organization challenging over-criminalization and mass incarceration, jails that provide free video visiting onsite often limit those visits to brief periods during the weekday, when people are at work and school, to encourage the costlier remote chats. Some other jails charge for use of the technology even if you do come to the facility. Video visits make the most sense in state and federal prisons, which can often be far away and difficult and/or expensive for families to get to — the technology could save families travel costs and prevent them from having to miss work and school. But it’s been local jails that have most embraced the technology.

Certain flaws in carceral video technology, like blackouts when a visitor’s head leaves the screen, are “security features” rather than bugs, and others may be key sources of revenue

Even in jails, video visiting could be a helpful supplement to traditional in-person visits. It could save children the traumatic experience of entering a jail and seeing a parent trapped inside; it could save visitors and prisons the emotional, temporal, and financial costs of intense processing and search procedures. It could increase flexibility in visiting hours and expand visiting opportunities, say from home-bound family members, clergy, and other members of a community. It could be used in reentry planning, to connect prisoners with reentry programs prior to release. In-person visits are highly mediated, too: Even before video visiting was implemented in the 1990s, most counties had eliminated “contact” visits where visitors and prisoners could touch. Following this logic, the industry claims that video visiting can provide easy, convenient communication with loved ones.

But while much of the technology’s potential lies in its use as a supplement to in-person visits, jail facilities throughout the country are increasingly adopting the costly technology in place of in-person interactions. More than 13 percent of local jails in the United States now use video visitation, and most of them (74 percent), banned in-person visits after adding the new technology, according to research by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). Securus, one of the most powerful companies in the phone and video visit industry, has in the past required the termination of in-person visits in their contracts, although thanks to advocacy they have recently announced they will no longer do so. Just last month, Governor Jerry Brown of California vetoed a bill that would have forced jails who adopted the video-visit technology to keep in-person visitation available. At least 11 counties in California have so far eliminated, plan to eliminate, or severely restrict in-person visitation in favor of video visiting technology, which families and activists say is a poor substitute.

As the Department of Justice stated in a 2014 report, in-person visiting helps maintain family stability, reduces disciplinary infractions and violence, and reduces recidivism. We don’t know if video visiting in its place would have the same effects, but it seems unlikely. Not least because video visitation technology frequently fails to work effectively — or, more accurately, it succeeds at working poorly.

“People compare video visiting to Skype or FaceTime,” says Bernadette Rabuy, Senior Policy Analyst of PPI, “because that’s an easy way to explain what’s going on. But it’s not like those services.” Skype and FaceTime are designed to allow us to feel together when we’re apart: long-distance couples use them to keep in touch; some therapists and doctors now conduct clinical sessions over video. The video visiting technology used in the carceral setting can do the opposite: make people feel worlds apart, when they might really just be on opposite ends of a jail. The technology seems designed to prevent intimacy and create a sense of disconnection. If Skype can simulate the feeling of being in a room with someone, carceral video technology can simulate something like being in a room filled with a dense fog and loud static; if you stretch out your hand in front of you, it’s not clear what you’ll touch, or whether you’ll touch anything at all.

When Laura tried to video visit John from where she lives, in another state, “it wasn’t worth it,” she says. “My brother answered the call, and I could tell he just thought it was gonna be a waste of time because he’d seen other inmates doing it. I was trying to show him, with my computer screen, the outside of the house I was in, just so he could see some outdoors, because he hasn’t been outside in a year. But every time you move your face away from the screen’s camera it goes black. I thought that was a technical glitch, but based on an email I received, that’s an intentional technology they have on it to try to prevent flashing of gang signs, or someone showing pornography.”

In the ad copy on its website, Tech Friends reveals the cause: “What’s the biggest fear with remote video visitation? Lewd or inappropriate content coming into your facility. While other vendors offer you the ability to monitor video using your personnel, the Eclipse technology eliminates it. See for yourself.

“This is a vulnerable population that they are working with — the companies can get away with a bad product. If family members are having issues they might not have a phone number to call”

The link takes you to a YouTube video. A stock-photo pops up, one that can only have resulted from the search term “naughty cop”: a woman lying on her back, legs in the air, with a black police hat hanging jauntily off one foot. A black screen swipes across her body, leaving only a small square of her head visible. Above her head, words appear: “It’s all about CONTROL.”

The image fades, and loud buzzing feedback plays. We then watch a role-play of a simulated video visit between an “inmate” and an older, father figure. The simulation has the feel of an ’80s PSA, with the kind of acting that’s so fake you wonder why they bothered to stage it. Both the “inmate” and the “visitor” appear uncomfortable; they speak over each other, and generally seem to have trouble connecting, technologically and emotionally. “[It] looks like a dungeon here,” the inmate says. “Cold.”

“Right,” says the visitor. “Well, this video calling stuff’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, I guess so, if you want to see people on the outside. Makes you homesick—”

“You’ve got a lot of people who want to see you in jail,” the visitor interrupts. “We could probably sell this video.”

The audio is horrible, the buzzing incessant. When the visitor moves out of the frame, the visuals on his screen go black.

The skit seems like an ineffective advertisement, until you remember that Tech Friends isn’t marketed to people in prison, or their families on the outside. It’s marketed to corrections departments. According to Prison Policy Initiative, which has been working to get the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to address this issue since 2014, many of the problems with video visiting “are the inevitable result of the failed market structure: the companies consider the facilities — not the families paying the bills — as their customers.” Tech Friends is betting that a sheriff’s main goal isn’t enabling good communication between prisoners and their families.

Certain flaws in the technology, like blackouts when a visitor’s head leaves the screen, are “security features” rather than bugs. And others, like time delays, glitchiness, cutting in and out, sudden hangups, and lack of user support, may be key sources of revenue. As in the telephone industry, which PPI and families have been calling on the FCC to intervene in for over a decade, companies “find it economically advantageous to use poorly calibrated security systems to drop phone calls and trigger additional connection charges,” PPI reports. And it’s profitable for the prison and jails too, who sometimes get a portion of revenue kicked back to them, in the form of “commissions” from each visit. Before advocates stepped in, some children had to pay up to $1 per minute to talk to an incarcerated parent. Now the fees are lower, but there is also a long list of fees for other “services,” like setting up an account, closing an account, and even processing a payment.

“This is a vulnerable population that they are working with — the companies can get away with a bad product,” says Bernadette Rabuy. “If you had a problem [in the outside world] you might call the company, or online chat with them. With these families, if the family members are having an issue they might not even be able to have a phone number to call.”

A then-representative from a Missouri county purchasing department told a reporter, “I guess it depends what viewpoint you’re coming from. The way I look at it, we’ve got a captive audience. If they don’t like (the rates), I guess they should not have got in trouble to begin with.”

Video visiting makes it more difficult for families to know how someone’s really doing. At one point in the Tech Friends demonstration video, the “inmate” asks if the “visitor” would send money for commissary. “I don’t think so,” the visitor says. “We’ve been through this before … it’ll just get spent on someone else.”

“Oh, you think I’m getting pushed around in here?”

“I know you’re getting pushed around there.”

The inmate brings his head close to the screen, which moves in a lunging, time-delayed manner. “Look,” he says, “no bruises.” His face is blurry.

During video visits, families struggle to clearly see the incarcerated person, and instead face a pixelated or sometimes frozen image. Video chat confuses your senses: It’s a jerky, indistinct, distorted version of an interaction. “You can’t really assess their health, their skin tone,” Laura says. “You can’t really assess whether or not the jail is doing something really wrong.” For her, “It’s very dehumanizing to be told you can’t be in the same room, even for a short time, as the person you love.” The effects are worst, Laura says, for people who have young children. “[Kids] don’t know what’s happening. They can’t communicate over the computer. It keeps children away from their parents.”

Though also heavily monitored, in person you can whisper, murmur, mutter, imply, suggest and shrug. Video technology used in jails reduces interaction to its crudest features

Another big problem with video chats, especially bad ones: “You can’t make eye contact.” In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other, MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes that robots who can make eye contact are key to human acceptance of artificial intelligence — without eye contact, machines can fall into the “uncanny valley,” and a person can seem not quite human. With video visitation, there’s a sense that you can’t experience the full reality of the person on the other end of the camera; nor can they experience yours. On top of that is the paranoia of knowing you’re under surveillance, or, even worse, that you may be. At the bottom of the screen runs the text: “This call may be monitored or recorded.” In-person visitation is heavily monitored, too, but in person you can whisper, murmur, mutter, imply, suggest and shrug, gestures and intonations that are lost with the video technology used in jails, which can reduce interaction to its crudest features. The lack of intimacy, and ability to communicate subtly in video visits can completely change the dynamic between loved ones.

“You can’t speak freely,” Laura says. “That would be another part of seeing him in person — being able to speak more candidly. Not to say anything bad, but just to ask, like … how are you really feeling?” On John’s end of the video visit, “he’s in a room with dozens of men. It’s incredibly loud, and he doesn’t want to talk in-depth about his feelings in front of all these men he has to maintain a pecking order with every day.” The necessity of having to articulate something loudly and clearly over video might make it not worth the risk.

When you’re already in an emotionally fragile place, the unpredictability of these video interactions can be further frustrating and traumatizing. When you’re using Tech Friends, Laura says, “you’re really scared they’re gonna cut it off at any minute for something you did.” Even if “they” don’t cut the feed, internet connections or the technology itself can cause the video to disconnect.

There’s no shortage of much more advanced video technology in jails, though it’s not being installed to help families. 60 Days In, a reality television show that just concluded its second season on A&E, is set in the very jail where John is locked up, and was filmed during his incarceration. According to Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel, the show was conceived as a means of exposing criminal behavior within the facility, which was “known for being a violent, sort of terrible place,” in the words of ABC News’ Dan Abrams. Rather than install undercover cops, Noel decided, in collaboration with a production company, to enlist civilians willing to spend 60 days in the jail as plants.

“They came in and installed some pretty high-tech cameras that we’ve never had in our facility before,” Noel told Entertainment Weekly — reportedly more than 300 round-the-clock surveillance cameras, worth over $200,000, which A&E allowed them to keep. First Timers Holdings LLC, the production company, also paid the jail $500 a day to film, which Noel says added up to $51,000 over the two seasons, on top of paying for undercover inmates’ meals and reimbursing officers’ salaries over the course of filming. Noel, who told reporters that the jail has increased services for inmates since the series began, said that the show resulted in seven officers resigning and five getting fired for unacceptable behavior. He also said the surveillance equipment helped the administration charge inmates with an estimated 35 criminal charges.

Prison authorities were legally obligated to tell the prisoners that they would be filming a TV show, and give them the option of whether or not to appear on camera. They told them the show was a documentary about “first-time inmates.” What they didn’t tell the prisoners, or the guards, was that the seven “first-time prisoners” featured were not real prisoners — rather, they were reality show contestants acting as undercover spies. The show’s producer says they employed a team of lawyers to make sure they were getting away with as much as they could without technically violating any of the prisoners’ rights. “We’re not coming out and deceiving anyone,” executive producer Greg Henry told BuzzFeed. “We’re just telling them the doc is about first-timers and that’s the place we landed where everyone felt comfortable.”

“All the inmates were excited to watch it on the jail’s TVs when it premiered,” Laura says. “But they weren’t allowed to.” People who were incarcerated at the time of filming, but have since been released, have said the show was edited for drama. “They did alter a few things to give it a whole different meaning,” DiAundré Newby told News and Tribune, “so I’m quite sure that a lot of that had to do with them trying to get ratings and kind of Hollywood it up a little bit.” A&E declined to comment to the publication. A video’s distorted version of reality is quite familiar to most of the men and women locked up in Clark County jail, only allowed to see glimpses of the outside in stuttering video snippets, edited and “eclipsed” by Tech Friends. While the jail limits families’ access to prisoners, it welcomes TV producers.

While Clark County jail limits families’ access to prisoners, it welcomes TV producers: The blackout of information about the exploding prison population created fodder for collective fantasizing

In some ways, the success of 60 Days In can trace its origin to the 1970s, when a boom in prison construction was accompanied by a series of laws designed to fill the structures — mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws, and the “war on drugs.” At the same time, most states also enacted laws making it illegal for convicted authors to receive money for their writing; prison writing programs were defunded, and press access was restricted. The exploding prison population combined with the blackout of information created fodder for collective fantasizing about life in prison.

Neither video visitation nor 60 Days In bring outsiders any closer to understanding life inside of Clark County Jail. Video visitation software blurs and blacks out the camera and 60 Days In uses dramatic music, quick cuts, and familiar reality-TV tropes like the “confessional” that obscure the chronology of events. These distortions can be painful for both prisoners and their loved ones and shroud the reality of life inside.

“Even superficially realistic representations, such as the Oz TV serial, end up masking or normalizing America’s vast complex of institutionalized torture,” writes historian Bruce Franklin. “Perhaps the dominant image, promulgated by the very forces that have instituted the prison-building frenzy, envisions prison as a kind of summer camp for vicious criminals, where convicts comfortably loll around watching TV and lifting weights.”

In the penultimate episode of season two, the sheriff, his captain and a criminology professor debrief with one of the undercover contestants, Ashleigh. They ask her if, as a new mom, she was able to maintain relationships with her family while in jail using the technology available. “I know that the policy is no face-to-face visitation here,” she says, “but I feel like that would ease so much stress and tension. I feel like the benefit of someone being able to see their family and know that someone actually is out there and cares, that would really help reduce someone being locked up again.”

At first Laura couldn’t bring herself to watch 60 Days In, because she knew it was filmed while her brother was going through withdrawal from heroin, without access to replacement medication like Suboxone, which the jail didn’t allow. It also showed the prisoners corralled in a holding room for days, sleeping on the floor, without adequate water and shower facilities after a sewer pipe burst in the jail.

In terms of regulating the video visiting industry on a federal level, Rabuy of PPI is worried that the FCC will not be able to do anything anytime soon. The FCC is still dealing with legal battles resulting from its attempts to regulate the phone industry, which similarly charges families exorbitant rates to stay in touch with incarcerated family members. Since premiering last March, 60 Days In has become, according to BuzzFeed, “TV’s No. 1 new unscripted cable series and the network’s No. 1 program.”

The roleplay ad for Tech Friends ends with the “inmate” trying to say something: “Hey, if you see —”

The “father” character speaks over him. “Okay I’m gonna hang up,” he says calmly, with a slight smile. “Enjoy your stay at the ‘hotel.’”

“Yeah, yeah, the roach motel,” the inmate responds. “Thanks.”

As he begins to stand up, both screens freeze. The two men’s faces float; it’s impossible to tell what they’re looking at. All you can hear is loud buzzing.

Sarah Beller is a social worker and writer.