One recent trend in American prisons is that many are replacing in-person visitation with video calls. In some of the locations where this reform is implemented, prisoner’s families must pay up to $1.50 for each minute they spend on the call, enriching the private companies that operate the video hosts and burdening poor families.
Inmates often have a hard time maintaining a connection to their family while they serve their sentence, as it is inconvenient for family members to travel to the jail to visit. This is problematic, as maintaining connection to family and friends is a key factor in reintegrating with the world once a person is released. One potential solution to this is to utilize new technology to provide video visitation options to supplement in-person visitations, thus enhancing the ability of prisoners to contact their loved ones.
Unfortunately, the adoption of this new form of visitation in US prisons has been hopelessly entwined with the profit motive. As reported by Vice News, of the 600 facilities in the USA that currently have video visitations, 74% eliminate in-person visitation, forcing prisoners to rely entirely on the new system to contact their family. Not only does this completely eliminate the ability of families to have actual face-to-face interactions, but it gives private companies who provide the video chat systems a captive consumer base to charge for their services. These calls can cost up to $1.50 per minute, which is divided between the prison and the video streaming company.
Just to put this into perspective, imagine that a man with two kids is sent to jail for two years on a minor drug charge. His girlfriend is living as a single mother on a fixed income, barely scraping by, and is now expected to pay $1.50 per minute for her children to see their father. If he wants to have one half-hour video call every two weeks, the annual cost to his girlfriend would be $1,170. Obviously, this is well beyond her means, and the end result is that his visitation rights are ended for most of the two years he is incarcerated.
The companies behind this type of prison profiteering are virtually anonymous (e.g. you probably have never hear of Securus Inc.), and use this anonymity to push for contracts that mandate the elimination of in-person visitation and freeze out any competitors. In effect, they create a monopoly in the prison where anybody who wants to see their family needs to go through them, and pay out the nose for doing so. Prisons benefit from this arrangement in several ways, including a cut of the profits and reductions in labor associated with in-person visitation (e.g. searching visitors and controlling the visitation room). Additionally, the elimination of in-person visitation reduces the risk that prisoners will use family members to smuggle drugs and contraband into the prison.
This shift towards video-based visitation in many prisons is extremely troubling and will fall the hardest on the poor. White collar criminals can easily pay the cost of visitation imposed on these calls, while the poor bear the brunt of the hardship. As the prison population in the United States is disproportionately poor and minority, the actual impacts of these shifts in visitation are widespread and significant.
Revenues are being extracted from prisoners in the USA through a variety of financial arrangements. At the most basic level, these arrangements are designed to extract money from one of three sources: 1) the state, 2) prisoners, or 3) prisoners’ families. These funds are funneled to private interests who contract with the state, or to the state itself.
The most direct of these arrangements is the private prison, where the state pays a private company to operate the prison and give them a fee on a per-prisoner basis. Profits are made through cutting prisoner services, reducing staff costs (e.g. lower salaries, no unions, few benefits, etc.) and sometimes reducing maintenance and security in the facility.
A second direct form of prison profiteering is the use of prison labor to provide services at well below market rates—this can benefit either private companies or the state. Private companies can contract with prisons in many states to supply them with labor (e.g. telemarketers, food preparation, and furniture making), paying mere cents an hour to the prisoners and a fee to the prison itself.
This dramatically reduces their costs, eliminates labor relations and benefits fights, and lets them circumvent wage and worker protections. Similarly, states will use unpaid prison labor to replace unionized public workers, eliminating the need to pay decent wages and provide benefits to those who work on public lands. The public jobs these prisoners are expected to perform vary, from road-crews picking up trash to firefighters dealing with wildfires.
Aside from these direct forms of prison profiteering, there are numerous, smaller, forms of extraction that target prisoners and their families. These include charging prisoners for making phone calls, operating prison stores to sell extras to prisoners (e.g. coffee), and even creating an option where prisoners can pay extra money to the state to get a better cell. The central purpose of these forms of extraction is to sell goods and services to the captive prison population, at a significant markup, in order to recoup some of the costs of housing them.
Because prison labor doesn’t pay, the money being extracted is almost always from the families of those convicted. Ironically, some prisons will also take money off of the top of these accounts, forcing families to pay a transaction fee every time they put money into their loved one’s account.
While these various forms of prison profiteering are commonplace in the United States, a new form of exploitation is becoming more common and must be directly addressed. Some prisons are reducing or eliminating prison visitations and replacing them with video call, very similar to Skype, which charge the families on a minute by minute basis. This is not only extremely regressive and inhumane, but it is also counter-productive.
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