As jails suspend in-person visitation, expensive video and phone calls fill the void

Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 01/14/2022, 2:45 PM

Written By: Mollie Bryant

(NATIONAL) To limit the spread of covid, some jails and prisons are suspending in-person visits, leaving inmates and their families to communicate through video and phone calls that can cost more than $1 per minute. 

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Since last week, county jails in Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states have suspended in-person family visits.

The Virginia Department of Corrections has also suspended in-person visits at its prisons through Jan. 28. As of early December, state prison systems in Hawaii, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming only allowed in-person visits from lawyers, according to information compiled by The Marshall Project.

In Florida, the Alachua County Jail put in-person family visits on hold this week as 82 inmates—about 10% of the jail’s population—tested positive for covid. A spokesperson said the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office was trying to get free video and phone calls for inmates at the facility, WCJB reported. A 15-minute phone call from the jail cost $7.96 in 2018, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Stacy A. Scott, public defender for Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit, including Alachua County, said she was concerned by the trend away from in-person visits at both local jails and Florida state prisons.

“My fear is that it will become harder and harder to visit in person and that there are definitely client family members who do not have the ability to have the technology to communicate, … and they’re not going to have the funds to be able to do that,” Scott said.

Before the pandemic, some jails and prisons had stopped offering in-person visits altogether.

Advocates for incarcerated people say the alternatives are poor substitutes for the real thing. And unlike in-person visits, phone and video calls cost money and sometimes a lot of it, potentially limiting communication between inmates and their support systems.

Family and friends are often the ones responsible for paying these excessive rates and fees.

“People love their families so much that they will put off paying bills or they’ll sell their car … to afford calls and video calls,” said Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. “Or they’ll refinance their house or whatever they have to do in order to continue to stay in touch.”

In 2018, a 15-minute call from jail cost a national average of $5.74, and calls made from jails were more than three times more expensive than calls from state prisons, research from the Prison Policy Initiative found.

The most expensive calls can cost more than $20 per 15 minutes, the study found. In Arkansas, jails in Arkansas, Baxter and Mississippi counties each charged $24.82 for a 15-minute call—an average of $1.65 per minute. In Oklahoma, a 15-minute call from Cherokee and Jackson county jails cost $18.87.

Video visits can take place at jails or virtually from anywhere, but those made outside jails usually aren’t free. In a Marshall Project survey from 2019, people with incarcerated family members or friends spent an average of $63 per month on video calls. A few of those surveyed said they spent $400 to $500 each month on the service.

Lack of in-person visits can degrade the privacy of attorney-client conversations

The Alachua County Jail doesn’t have a system that allows attorneys to meet confidentially with inmates by video, Scott said, in part due to a lack of space for it.

While the sheriff’s office works to find a solution, there’s a workaround. The public defender’s office paid to set up phone lines in interview rooms in the jail’s dorms, allowing Scott and her attorneys to speak with their clients more privately.

In the Arlington County jail in Virginia, attorneys also can’t meet face to face with their clients. Brad Haywood, chief public defender for Arlington County and executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, said attorneys use family visiting booths, which are divided by plexiglass but aren’t private.

“If you are sitting in a booth by yourself and there are people next to you in a booth talking, you can hear every word of their conversation,” Haywood said. “Oftentimes, if you’re in a really sensitive case, you may ask to move several booths away from someone so that maybe they can’t hear, and even then, you try to keep it down.”

That system, which places a literal barrier between them, makes it harder for lawyers and their clients to build a relationship.

“Think about if you had to talk to your partner or your kids with a pane of glass between you all the time,” Haywood said. “It changes the dynamic of the relationship and, yeah, definitely it’s not ideal.”

Contact editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or Follow her on Twitter.

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