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Inmates' Video Chats Might be Too Costly

Some jailers are wary of the video visitation rates, in part because of a federal crackdown on costly calls charged to inmates via conventional phones and critics who say inmates are being exploited.

(Tribune News Service) — Friday has always been date night for Jack Hamilton and his girlfriend.

Even since he was locked up 50 days ago in the Licking County jail, he still sees her — sort of.

His 20-minute respite from sterile concrete walls and jumpsuit-clad inmates is a weekly blessing with a $5 pricetag. That’s the promotional rate for video visitation at the county jail through a recent five-year contract with Securus Technologies. In some West Coast cities, that rate has more than doubled.

The Texas-based company is one of several vying for access to Ohio’s growing and captive inmate population.

Some jailers are wary of the offers, in part because of a federal crackdown last year on costly calls charged to inmates via conventional phones and critics who say inmates are being exploited.

Last fall, the Federal Communications Commission ordered a cap of 25 cents per minute on out-of-state calls and collect calls and 12 cents on prepaid or debit-card calls made by the nation’s inmates to friends and families.

Before the change, Ohio’s inmate phone calls in state prisons were among the nation’s most-expensive — more than $17 for a 15-minute call — with the state receiving commissions of $15 million annually from its vendor, Global Tel*Link.

The FCC crackdown doesn’t affect video visitation.

Statewide, there have been just a few contracts signed with a variety of vendors, according to the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, an inmate-rights group.

But a modern-day gold rush awaits the vendors and jails seeking new revenue, said Bob Cornwell, of the Buckeye State Sheriffs Association.

“I think there is that rush to a big-time money windfall,” Cornwell said. “They’re wanting to make hay while the sun shines because the FCC will eventually come down on them, too.”

Future FCC rulings would not affect existing contracts, Cornwell said. And he’s worried that some jailers might accept deals hastily.

Costly calls can be a hardship for families and dangerous to society, critics say. Even 50 cents a minute “is not reasonable for the demographic, for some of the nation’s poorest families,” said Bernadette Rabuy of Prison Policy Initiative, based in Northampton, Mass.

Inmates are happier and recidivism is lower when there is regular, direct contact with loved ones. High-cost, impersonal visits work against that, Rabuy said.

The Newark jail used to allow visitors to speak to inmates through holes in glass partitions. The partitions were removed when the jail was remodeled in 2001. The jail offers 50 minutes weekly of free video chats for its 200 to 300 inmates. That is separate from the Internet-based system installed by Securus. Inmates use adjacent, similar, video hookups to access the two systems. The jail has a room with 20 cubicles where visitors use video screens to talk to inmates.

The Securus system allows friends and family to pay for and contact inmates at a prearranged time from anywhere via home computers. Inmates have a similar, shared setup in their living areas and are notified when a call arrives. The jail gets a 20 percent commission.

Limiting inmate movement within the jail can prevent fights and the sharing of drugs and weapons, said sheriff’s Lt. Chris Barbuto, who oversees the inmates. “And it’s going to make them more well-adjusted and happier.”

As Hamilton, 28, awaits a pretrial hearing on drug-possession charges, he splits his free calls among his girlfriend, mom and two children, ages 6 and 8. His girlfriend, who is studying to be a teacher, pays for the Friday “visits.”

“Every day I look forward to it,” Hamilton said. “I can’t wait until Friday. Seeing her face really livens me up. It lets you know you’ve got people standing beside you.”

Montgomery, Sandusky and Summit county jails also are trying out video visits.

And Ohio’s 31 prisons and holding facilities offer the service through vendor JPay for $9.90 for 30 minutes.

The Franklin County jail might consider replacing in-person with video visitation when it opens a new facility in 2019, said Jim Goodenow, director of facilities for the county. A “philosophy of fairness” keeps regular phone-call charges “well below the average,” he said.

For Hamilton, video might have advantages over in-person visits.

“You’re looking at them on a screen with a phone against your ear,” he said. “But somehow it’s not near as depressing as having them right there where I should be able to touch them.”

©2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC