To Help Prisoners Stay Connected, Minnesota Allows Video Chats

by | October 22, 2015 AT 11:00 AM

By Beatrice Dupuy

Video technology is giving Minnesota inmates a glimpse of the outside world -- and often a window into their former homes -- from behind bars.

All 11 state Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities now allow inmates to video chat with loved ones via tablet or computer in a program similar to FaceTime or Skype.

The department signed on with Florida video visitation company JPay Inc. this spring. That company was recently acquired by prison technology giant Securus Technologies.

Video visitation is expected to be up and running on all JPay kiosks in the facilities by the end of October -- just in time for inmates to see their children's Halloween costumes or pumpkin-carving prowess.

"It's a convenient option for those who live far away from the facility, in addition to being another way to keep people connected," Jade Trombetta, JPay spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

At the Oak Park Heights prison, video visitation began Thursday. To use it, inmates and their loved ones schedule appointments online for a fee. Once added to the inmate's approved list, visitors pay $9.95 to speak to an inmate for 30 minutes. Inmates themselves cannot make or pay for calls.

The department receives $1 of the $9.95, said Sarah Latuseck, a DOC spokeswoman. "All commissions are held in a separate account that can only be used to fund offender programs and activities," she said in an e-mail.

Inmates and their visitors won't be the only ones looking at the screen. JPay and the department will monitor the video calls, and recordings of the chats will be archived for at least nine months.

JPay will gather intelligence related to violations of facility rules, video visiting rules of conduct or state and federal laws by video users, according to the JPay contract with the Department of Corrections.

Inmates are not limited to video calls. Starting in November, JPay will offer JP5 mini-tablets for purchase that will allow them to write and send e-mail, listen to music and store pictures. Inmates will not have access to the Internet.

Pros and cons

More than 500 U.S. prisons use video visitation technology, said Bernadette Rabuy, a spokeswoman for Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that advocates against mass incarceration. Video visits reduce security risks and cut down on traveling costs for families, supporters say.

Skeptics, however, question whether they replace interpersonal contact that could reduce recidivism.

Video visiting will not replace in-person visiting at prisons, Latuseck said.

The Ramsey County Adult Detention Center ended face-to-face visits except for professional visits in 2003. All of the center's visitations are done via video. Ramsey County also recently enabled visits via mobile devices, said Sgt. John Eastham, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office.

The Carver County jail in Chaska started its video visitation program in 2013. Since then, inmates have made 140 video calls with Securus.

Five Securus video screens are set up inside the facility, located in each of the inmates' common areas and one in the booking room. When an inmate goes to use the technology for an appointment, he or she picks up the phone attached to the bullet-resistant monitor and accepts a video call. A room divider gives inmates some privacy for the chats.

Remote visiting creates more opportunities for inmates to see their loved ones, said Reed Ashpole, the Carver County jail commander. Visiting times are from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Wednesday.

The value of contact

Rebecca Shlafer, a University of Minnesota assistant professor of pediatrics, has studied the benefits of contact between incarcerated parents and their children. Remote visitation, she said, allows children to see their incarcerated parents from home.

"What does it mean for a child to not be able to hold, hug or see their parent?" she said. "Later on, what does that do for the offender? Doesn't it benefit us all to have that relationship healthy?"

The Department of Corrections intends to study the long-term effect of video visitation.

In 2011, it published a study examining 16,400 offenders who were released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2007. The study found that about 40 percent of them had no visitors.

"When we looked at the results from the study, we started thinking about ways we could potentially make our facilities more visitor-friendly," said Grant Duwe, the department's research director. "One of those ways involved looking at video visitation."

Robert Stewart, 34, a Ph.D. student in sociology at the U, schedules appointments to video-call his friend Michael Kirby, who is serving time for a drug offense in the Steele County Detention Center. Stewart uses the video visitation company Inmate Canteen to call Kirby.

Stewart said he wonders whether video visitation might have made things easier for his own loved ones when he spent two years in prison for drug possession.

"When you receive these visits from people you care about in your life, that gives you the opportunity to let your guard down and be more vulnerable," he said. "It's much easier to jump back into the world when you have connections with other people."

(c)2015 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)