A video calling machine installed in the lobby of the Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth allows outsiders to communicate with loved ones who are in jail. If they pay a fee, they can call from an app on their phone, accessible anywhere they have cell service. PHOTO BY JACK DODSON

Video visitation technology helps inmates stay in touch, but at a price

ELLSWORTH — On the morning of Nov. 6, Mathew Williams took a scheduled video call from his girlfriend. It was their first of the day. Typically, they talk five or six times a day.

She was in her car in Michigan, where she lives, driving with the phone perched on the dashboard like a GPS unit. The two met online about a year ago. She smiled into the camera, held her cigarette out the window and turned up the radio.

Back in his cell block at the Hancock County Jail, Williams listened to the music, a passenger in his girlfriend’s life while he serves a seven-month jail sentence for violating the terms of his probation.

This is a normal communication for the couple. She will often set up a call and then go about chores in her house, playing music through YouTube on her laptop.

The system that allows them to connect while Williams serves his time is a video visitation device that provides calling between people outside the jail and inmates. It was installed early this past summer.

Williams is the county jail’s heaviest user of the system, spending hours each day on the phone with his girlfriend and other family members. Only about five or six inmates out of about 50 held in the facility use the video system regularly.

The jail’s shift in handling relations between people inside and loved ones outside reflects a statewide and nationwide embrace of digital connection tools.

Contraband and staffing issues prompted the end of contact visits, according to Jail Administrator Tim Richardson. There wasn’t enough room in the budget for guards to cover each visit, he said, and drugs were being smuggled into the jail.

This was a particular problem, he said, when opiates became common in Downeast Maine.

Proponents of video visitation point to the fact that people serving time can spend Christmas or birthdays with their families, opening up connections that were previously impossible for those serving time. Williams agrees.

Richardson signed a contract in January 2016 with Securus, a Dallas-based, for-profit prison phone company, to install the video systems. Once contact visits ended, he said, inmates pressed for communication with the outside world. Securus provided that opportunity once the video units were installed.

Richardson said he entered into the contract because he believes video visits are a positive use of technology and beneficial to the people who are incarcerated.

The jail already had a long-running contract with Securus for non-video phone systems prior to the 2016 video visitation contract.

A document on Securus’s website lays out the terms of Hancock County Jail’s video visitation rules.

“Participation in video visitation is a privilege, not a right,” the document reads. It goes on to ban nudity and tight-fitting clothing, and allows jail officials to deny users on either end access to the system if they misbehave.

Richardson said even though the systems are installed in the cell blocks, the video screens are tilted upward to create a sense of privacy for both users.

Critics in Maine and across the country say video visitation can be detrimental to relationships while people are locked up. By 2015, more than 500 jails in the United States were using video visitation, according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that opposes mass incarceration.

“It is more difficult for families to ensure or evaluate the well-being of their incarcerated loved ones via video than in person or through the glass,” states that report.

Joe Jackson, who runs the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said the best practice for inmates is always contact visits — especially for those with families.

“Many of these people have kids,” he said. “Relationships are strained because of the separation of jail.”

Both Williams and Richardson said nothing can replace hugging a loved one. Richardson said he thought video calls were a fair trade, though, given the issues involved with contact visits. In-person visits are still technically available at the jail, too, but only with special permission from administrators.

Video visits are more available to users than contact visits ever were: in-person visits occurred for two hours each week, while the video system is available 13 hours each day between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. The jail has experienced some outages with the Securus system, Richardson said, but the company has moved to resolve the issues quickly.

Outside users have to initiate the calls and must schedule them 24 hours in advance. Williams’ girlfriend schedules her calls each night before she goes to sleep.

But they add up. Each one costs $5 or $10, depending on whether it’s a 20-minute or 40-minute call. In a given week, that can lead to a cost of about $350.

Users can avoid the fee if they use a Securus unit located in the jail’s lobby, but Richardson said people don’t use it.

Williams said he’s lucky because his girlfriend is able to afford that cost. Until recently, she was the manager at a bank, and now works at a machine shop that manufactures industrial parts.

Securus pays a fee to jails it has contracted with each month. In Hancock County’s case, it receives a monthly payment of $1,100, which goes directly to “inmate benefits,” a fund that goes toward rehabilitation programs, counseling or physical improvements to the quality of life for detainees.

In return, Securus keeps the money paid by users.

In one month, Williams’ girlfriend can end up paying more than Securus pays to the jail. For example, if they were to talk five times per day, paying an average of $7.50, they would pay $1,162.50 in a 31-day month.

The company is sprawling, with contracts across the country and federal business filings dating back to 2004.

Jackson said once state jails began to adopt video visitation, the Maine Department of Corrections abandoned the idea that inmates should have access to contact visits. He did not consider special permission to count as fulfilling that requirement.

MDOC officials did not reply to requests for comment.

“They allowed it to happen,” he said of the MDOC’s role in a statewide shift to video visitation. “They were complicit.”

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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