Mary Sanchez

When prison is a business, inmates and their families can suffer

Updated: 2014-01-22T23:45:39Z

By MARY SANCHEZ

The Kansas City Star

Prison is a lucrative business.

It’s constantly evolving, adept at finding new niche markets. Understand that context and the troubling aspects of replacing in-person visits with video conferencing will become clear. It’s like Skype for inmates. Wednesday was the system’s first day at the Shawnee County Adult Detention Center in Topeka.

Want to talk with your incarcerated loved one? You have to pay for it. The sessions are $20 for 20 minutes or $40 for 40, plus taxes/fees/surcharges. The change is indicative of a national shift.

As in Topeka, many of these contracts with the technology firms offering the service demand that the prison eliminate in-person visits altogether except for legal professionals, like a defense attorney. These companies hold huge leverage. Pressed to cut costs, prison administrators are being offered a cut of the profits. Shawnee County might receive 20 percent, according to the contract with Securus Technologies, based in Dallas.

The deal has benefits. A video session can be conducted from a person’s home computer, an obvious convenience. But some will be dissuaded by the cost. Grainy video footage has been criticized as a poor replacement for face time. A few booths offer video conferencing for free at the Topeka jail annex.

Video conferencing emerged as one way to circumvent the Federal Communications Commission. Last summer, the FCC began regulating the exorbitant rates some jails and prisons charged when an inmate telephoned family and friends collect.

Corrections experts have long known that allowing inmates to stay connected with family is important. Visits, mail, any appropriate interaction can help maintain order in a prison by alleviating prisoner frustration and stress. Recidivism — the high societal costs of people who cycle in and out of jail — can be cut dramatically when inmates are in contact with family and friends. It’s an outcome well grounded in studies and supported by the corrections industry.

Yet to build a stronger market, companies behind this technology insist on eliminating in-person visits. So they aren’t necessarily offering more ways for families to connect. They’re ensuring profit margins by insisting their service is the only process allowed.

And it’s a business plan that doesn’t allow its customers (relatives and friends of the incarcerated who pay the fees) the ability to press for better or cheaper services.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com.

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