Staff Columnist

Cost of for-profit jail visitation is too high

A warning is shown on the video monitor of a visitation kiosk in the lobby of the Polk County Jail in Des Moines, Iowa in 2013. At the time of this photo, the jail had 36 video visitation kiosks that let family and friends visit with inmates from a similar kiosk located in the cell pods. (Jim Slosiarek/Gazette Archives)
A warning is shown on the video monitor of a visitation kiosk in the lobby of the Polk County Jail in Des Moines, Iowa in 2013. At the time of this photo, the jail had 36 video visitation kiosks that let family and friends visit with inmates from a similar kiosk located in the cell pods. (Jim Slosiarek/Gazette Archives)
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Between the holidays and start of the Legislative session, you may have missed news that another county jail in Iowa is partnering with an out-of-state corporation to provide video visitation, for a price.

I first read the headline on the Radio Iowa website — “Jasper County to charge visitors to talk with inmates in county jail” — and had an immediate, negative reaction. Learning more about these types of agreements hasn’t lessened their distaste.

Jasper County supervisors approved on Jan. 2 a five-year contract with HomeWAV, a Delaware limited liability company. The contract, included in the agenda packet, contains an automatic five-year renewal, and is “governed by the laws of the State of Missouri, both as to interpretation and performance.”

Basically, the county will cover the costs of running cables at the jail, roughly $4,000, and will provide ongoing connectivity for the system. HomeWAV will provide and install other components — a router, multi-port switch and 11 kiosks. Visitation rules haven’t yet been updated on the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office website, so it remains unclear exactly how the system will be implemented. But we do know those using it will be charged 25 cents a minute. Once the $12,000 estimated cost of the equipment has been covered, 20 percent of revenue generated by the system will be returned to the county. The company keeps 80 percent.

While video visitation is a growing industry, it remains relatively uncommon in Iowa. Of the state’s 99 counties, only 13 have implemented such a system, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. In addition to Jasper, some level of video visitation is used in Johnson, Iowa, Scott, Pottawattamie, Woodbury, Polk, Des Moines, Wapello, Bremer, Buena Vista, Cerro Gordo and Hardin counties. At least four national companies, including HomeWAV, have contracts with county jails. And consumer costs vary by facility.

The industry may have made further inroads in the Hawkeye State if not for the formation of a task force in 2015 by then-Gov. Terry Branstad. The group, which Branstad announced at an NAACP-sponsored summit on justice reform, made recommendations in four key areas, one of which was the cost of prison and jail phone calls. Members of the task force noted affordable access “is a critical means by which offenders can maintain family connections to the best of their ability,” and expensive options “can have the unintended consequence of preventing the maintenance of such positive connections for those who are trying to do the right thing during their incarceration.”

Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, gave the keynote address at that 2015 NAACP-sponsored Iowa Justice Summit and, in a follow-up post, saw promise in the willingness to review phone costs. Iowa had a patchwork system where cost often depended on geography. Wagner also noted several Summit participants had related questions about the video visitation industry.

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My follow-up with the organization for a current list of county jails with implemented video programs included this note: “As you can see, only two have been added since 2015, to Iowa’s credit.”

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Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty won unanimous support from supervisors for his contract with HomeWAV. It will replace an older system at the jail, which Halferty said the county “never got revenue on.”

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said, “Whatever meager revenue the county is hoping to generate with this detrimental policy proposal is not worth the harms that will flow from it.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, she said, has held that restrictions on prisoner visitation (people duly convicted) must be rationally related to a legitimate penological interest. Restrictions on pretrial detainees — people held on charges while they await trial, like many of those in jail, who are innocent until proven guilty — are entitled to more protections when it comes to visitation.

“The Jasper County Sheriff has stated that his goal is to generate revenue for the county,” Bettis Austen said. “In neither case — those held pretrial or those convicted — would such a goal be determined to be a legitimate penological basis to charge family members of inmates who want to visit.”

The ACLU, advocacy groups and the U.S. Department of Justice have issued warnings about video visitation, especially when it becomes a replacement for in-person visitation. The practice can further isolate those in jails, hindering re-entry. It places an additional financial burden on families, punishing the innocent for having a loved one in jail.

“A policy like this would also undermine an inmate’s right to a fair trial and exacerbate the impact of poverty and race in our criminal justice system,” said Bettis Austen.

“It’s already much harder for those who are detained pretrial to assist their attorneys in defending against their criminal charges, and law enforcement and prosecutors know that outcomes are worse for those who can’t afford bail and are held pretrial than those who bail out; often, having the assistance and connection to family on the outside is the only hope of helping to bridge this gap among people with resources and those without.”

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What research has shown is that visitation is a public good — one that cuts taxpayer cost in the short and long run while benefiting inmates, families and government. Visitation is linked to lower recidivism rates and fewer disciplinary infractions.

“Studies confirm that incarcerated individuals have better outcomes when they receive in-person visits from family members and supportive community members,” wrote the Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections in a 2014 report.

The agency argued that video visits shouldn’t become a substitute for face-to-face visits.

“Traditional, in-person visiting is a best practice that should continue in all correctional settings when possible,” the report said.

The American Correctional Association, which provides accreditation for jails, agrees. “Regular communication between offenders and their family and friends is proven to aid the re-entry process,” the group wrote in a 2016 statement. “Correctional agencies should promote communications between offenders and their family and friends.”

In-person visits nurture stronger relationships, which make it more likely people can access help after leaving jail — including finding a place to stay and assistance landing a job.

“Unfortunately, the elimination of in-person visitation and providing only video calling, either for a fee or for free, while still rare in Iowa, is something that is growing. But jails should resist the invitation by for-profit video calling system companies to end normal visitation. For-profit video calling is terrible public policy that undermines public safety and principles of justice,” Bettis Austen said.

In some instances, such as when family members cannot travel for an in-person visit, video visitation makes sense and is a far better alternative than no contact at all. But even in those circumstances, no-cost options exist.

When we understand the money feeding a for-profit company is being made on the backs of Iowans already in a tough situation, and often least likely to be able to bear the burden; when we know private or public profit stems from the psychological suffering of innocent family members and diminished outcomes for those within the justice system, we should concentrate our efforts on implementing alternatives.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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