Digitized Theft

Proposed digital visits throw a monkey wrench in criminal justice reform

Mike Cox, Contributing Writer

On September 13, 2017 I had the honor of standing shoulder to shoulder with the ACLU, Prison Policy Initiative, Prisoners’ Legal Services, and community activists in the Massachusetts State House. We offered testimony in support of House Bill 1278, which would protect the rights of incarcerated people to receive in-person visits.


As you read this, local jails and for-profit telecommunication companies are colluding to usher in the newest form of oppression – digital visits. Digital visits are a bit of a misnomer because they are more akin to enhanced phone calls than a traditional visit.


Here is how it works: telecommunication companies approach jails and offer to install digital visit kiosks. In exchange, sheriffs are usually required to abolish in-person visits. This is a critical requirement that creates the demand for the service. In addition to on-site digital visits, these companies offer an at-home service that can be accessed on a PC, laptop, or smartphone. On-site visits are typically free of charge to families, but the at-home service is a paid subscription. It can cost families up to $1.50 per minute to use it.


To justify these new digital visits, local jails cite the need to reduce the cost of staffing visitation rooms and to prevent drugs, or other contraband, from entering the facility. These cost savings and safety justifications may sound convincing. However, the overwhelming majority of jails abolished “contact visits” decades ago and replaced them with two phone receivers divided by a plexiglass wall.


Unless visitors have somehow figured out how to defy the laws of physics, I’m not convinced drugs can pass through plexiglass. Anyone that’s been locked up can tell you that most prison drugs are introduced by guards looking to supplement their salaries.


Digital visits are unreliable. According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, families often complain that images of their loved ones are blurred, pixelated, or frozen. It is not fair to charge $45 for a glitchy 30 minute digital visit when a traditional visit was offered freely. Overcharging families for a sub-optimal service to a captive audience goes against principles of justice and common sense.


Digital visits are not the same as traditional visits. Nothing can take the place of looking your loved one in the eyes, having intimate conversations, or assessing their health. Cameras are often angled so that eye contact is not possible. Video quality is so poor that evaluating the health or even skin tone of your loved one is impossible.


Incarceration disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, particularly communities of color and low-income communities. These are the same communities that this for-profit scheme seeks to exploit. Remember, families are already expected to provide their loved one funds to purchase toiletries, food, and writing supplies as well as cover the cost of collect phone calls. For many, this will be the final nail in their fiscal coffin. While families choke on these fees, jails typically enjoy a 20-40 percent kickback.


Digital visits can be helpful for families who are unable to visit their loved one due to distance or a disability. One study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that inmates who receive any type of visit are 13 percent less likely to recidivate for a new crime and 25 percent less likely to be reincarcerated due to a violation of probation. As such, digital visits would be an excellent addition, made free and subsidized by the corrections system, instead of a replacement for the essential experience of in-person visits that so many families and prisoners depend on.

At a time when criminal justice reform is gaining traction nationwide, we should not allow for-profit companies to implement criminal justice regression.