RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post The Denver Sheriff Department is negotiating with a vendor to bring a new video conferencing system to the city’s two jails on Oct. 13, 2017 in Denver. The new system would allow families and friends of inmates to have video chats from their home computers.
As the Denver Sheriff Department prepares to introduce a new way for inmates to communicate with their family and friends, the city’s police watchdog is raising questions about whether the department should reinstate face-to-face meetings at the jails.
In-person visits better maintain family and community bonds, which, in turn, help inmates succeed once they are released from jail, independent monitor Nick Mitchell wrote last week in his 2017 semi-annual report.
“The reasons to encourage in-person visitation — particularly between parents and children — are powerful,” Mitchell said. “So before any contract is finalized, we need to talk about whether depriving kids of in-person visits with their parents is consistent with our values as a city.”
The monitor also is warning city officials that modern video visitation can be costly to inmates’ families, most of whom are low-income, who probably would be required to pay fees if they chose to use a home computer to chat with inmates.
As the city negotiates a contract for a new video visitation system, now is the time for the sheriff’s department to rethink visitation in Denver’s jails, Mitchell wrote.
“Before the city makes a long-term — and possibly substantial — financial investment in a jail video visitation system, the (Office of the Independent Monitor) recommends that the (sheriff department) begin developing a plan to reinstate contact visits in Denver’s jails,” the report said.
The sheriff’s department doesn’t plan to restore face-to-face visits between inmates and their families and friends, said Daelene Mix, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Public Safety.
“Right now, the facilities and the staffing plans aren’t set up to allow that to occur,” Mix said. “That’s not to say those discussions won’t be had in the future.”
Denver has prohibited in-person inmate visits since 2005 after a series of domestic violence incidents and because contraband was being passed during the meetings, Mix said. Now, inmates’ families must go to the Downtown Detention Center or the County Jail on Smith Road and use video visitation terminals, which are free.
The Denver Sheriff Department is negotiating with a vendor to bring a new video conferencing system to the city’s two jails. The current video visitation area is seen here on Oct. 13, 2017 in Denver.
The city is negotiating details of a five-year, $1.4 million contract with Securus Technologies, a company that provides telecom services to jails and prisons, Mix said. Details of how the program would work are not finalized.
It is likely families still would be able to have free video visits if they travel to the jails, Mix said.
Securus provides services to 19 agencies in Colorado, including the Arapahoe County Detention Center, the Jefferson County Detention Center and the Boulder County Jail, according to its website. Securus already lists Denver as a customer and has links where people can register for prepaid accounts.
Most detention centers along the Front Range that offer video visitation do not allow in-person visits, including Arapahoe, Adams, Jefferson and Douglas counties.
Many corrections experts, however, argue that video visitations should not replace in-person visits. They also have criticized the industry for charging too much to families who often cannot afford high telephone bills while a family member is incarcerated.
Since jails have started using video visitation, they have moved away from in-person visits, said Lucius Couloute, a policy analyst for the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, nonpartisan agency that researches incarceration issues. In 2015, the Prison Policy Initiative studied video visitation use in 500 prisons and jails in 43 states, and it found 74 percent of the jails banned in-person visits once they implemented video visitation.
“Video calling is fine,” Couloute said. “It’s all good and well as a supplement. But it shouldn’t be a replacement for in-person visitation.”
In-person visits help reduce recidivism because inmates are allowed direct contact with people on the outside, helping them with smoother transitions once they are released, Couloute said. They also give inmates an incentive to behave because visitation can be revoked as a disciplinary measure.
“Really, these video calls are not visits,” Couloute said. “They’re a form of communication but you’re not able to see and touch another person.”
Mary West-Smith, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Northern Colorado, agreed video visitation should not replace in-person visits.
But video visitation is less expensive and easier for jail staff to provide, she said.
“Jail administrations also generally argue that visitors bring contraband, especially drugs, into a jail,” West-Smith said. “While visitors do on occasion try to bring contraband into facilities, in my experience the issue of visitors bringing in contraband is really overstated. These are typical justifications for wanting to eliminate in-person visits — video visits are cheaper, and they reduce the amount of contraband.”
Some jurisdictions are taking steps to require jails to allow in-person visits. In Texas, the legislature approved a bill that requires jails to offer inmates at least two in-person visits a month, according to the monitor’s report. New Jersey is considering a similar measure, and Washington, D.C., is reinstating face-to-face visits, according to a February report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Face-to-Face Family Visits Return to Some Jails.”
Daniel Mears, a criminology professor at Florida State University, said there is no solid comparative research that proves one form of visitation is superior to the other.
“For some inmates, it probably does help them to maintain contact,” he said.
For others, however, it can add stress, especially if the inmate gets into a fight with a spouse or loved one during a visit, Mears said. Those visits also happen in controlled environments where physical contact is restricted and conversations are monitored.
Mears participated in a study that found inmates followed prison rules in the weeks leading up to a visit but bad behavior escalated for about six weeks afterward.
“It’s not like a silver bullet,” he said of visitation.
Under most contracts between jails and telecom companies for remote video visitation services, inmates and their families are charged a fee, and then the company and the jail split the proceeds, Couloute said. Because Denver has not finalized its contract, it is not known how much inmates would be charged for video visitation nor what kind of commission Denver would receive.
A Prison Policy Initiative study in 2015 reported that Securus charged rates ranging from 50 cents to $1.50 per minute for video visitation service. Its typical rate was $1 per minute, the report said. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, one of the jails included in the report, at the time charged 33 cents per minute through its vendor, Telmate.
The technology companies say that video visitations, especially programs that allow people to connect with inmates from their home or work, or even via mobile apps, make it convenient to maintain contact.
The new system at Denver’s jails should help do that, Mix said. The sheriff’s department does all it can to support inmates’ interactions with family and friends, she said, including offering a program that allows female inmates to record bedtime stories for their children.
Mitchell, the independent monitor, acknowledged that restoring face-to-face visits at Denver’s jails would take a huge effort because it would require additional space, staffing and money. But he said he was ready to stand with the sheriff’s department to help create a solution.