OITNB visitation room vs. reality: #PrisonSkype

At Litchfield, Piper and the women with whom she is incarcerated receive many visitors throughout the Orange is the New Black (OITNB) series.  Some people visit with friends and family, including their children, and others receive visits from charitable organizations, pen pals, and sometimes even strangers.  What’s common about all of the visits portrayed in the show are that they happen in a room where the women  and their visitors sit across from one another at tables with nothing in between them.  In prison policy speak this is referred to as “a contact visit.”  Although the degree of permissible contact is limited, which we see as Litchfield’s correctional officers intervene when (in their judgement) a boundary has been crossed, the women and their visitors experience an interaction on par with that of two people sitting across a kitchen table.  

In the real world, a new visitation trend is sweeping the nation, particularly at the county jail level.  Video “visits” provided by technology companies, are being marketed as a safe, efficient, and profitable responses to county jails’ needs to address high-volume visitation hours, over-crowded visiting rooms, and hours-long waits to see incarcerated loved ones.  The advent of the technology has compelled some county jails (nearly two dozen in Texas alone) to wholly eliminate in-person visits, even if a visitors shows up at the jail.  In theory, utilizing new technologies like video to enhance the ability of incarcerated people to stay connected their families and their communities is a good idea.  In practice, however, this trend is worrisome.   

What happens in a face-to-face visit (even through plexiglass) that gets lost in a video “visit”? Imagine sitting across a table or on the other side of a window from someone you love and know well.  Can you see their complexion, their facial expression, and what their eyes might communicate without words?  Do you know from looking at them whether they are physically and emotionally well? Now imagine the same interaction through Skype or FaceTime.  Is it the same?

The problems with the technology used for video visits in prison and jails are well-documented and below consumer standards for equivalent technologies in the free world.  What’s more, people desperate to see their loved ones are often paying by the minute to use  it, whereas Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangout are free.  Problems include issues with the visual experience, the audio experience, and connectivity.  And users of the systems, whether or not they are paying for the service, get the run around from both the tech companies and the county jails who point to each other being at fault.  

In some localities, counties, sheriff’s offices, and/or the technology company are being sued for misuse of video visitation services.  For example, in Travis County, Texas a suit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project alleges that archived video of privileged conversations between attorneys and their clients was leaked to local prosecutors.  Public outcry about the move away from in-person, face-to-face visits toward video-only visitation policies and what has been called the extortion of the families of incarcerated loved ones has captured the attention of both local and national media outlets.  National think tanks like the Prison Policy Initiative have taken up the issue as one of major concern in their recent report Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails.

From the industry’s perspective, the innovation of video visitation has been a resounding success, and its presence in carceral facilities across the country is growing.  We fear that by the time Season 4 of OITNB is released, video visits will be the norm, face-to-face visit will be the exception at all levels of incarceration, and Piper’s mom will have to shout at her through a TV monitor.  Join us in the campaign to stop the elimination of face-to-face visits.