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Filed 6:00 a.m.
12.19.2019

Can You Hear Me Now?

Prison officials tout video visitation’s convenience. Families say they’re paying high rates for second-rate service

Mike April, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, chats via online video with his wife, Heather April, who is incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon. Nitashia Johnson for The Marshall Project and The New York Times

Twice a week Mike April logs onto his computer and video chats with his wife, Heather April, who is incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon.

“We call it date night,” he said. “It’s our time we get to spend together, seeing each other.”

The Marshall Project is partnering with The New York Times Race/Related newsletter to present a weeklong series on families of the incarcerated. This is the third of five parts. Read the previous parts about the hidden cost of incarceration and the long journeys undertaken to visit incarcerated loved ones.

The couple met three years ago, at the suggestion of a friend, and bonded over their love of Harry Potter, Star Wars and the Oregon Ducks. Mike April lives in Texas, so he uses vacation time to visit her. The distance can be trying. April says that after a few months without seeing his wife in person, the fine details of her face—like the contours of her smile and the freckles scattered across her cheeks—start to fade from his memory.

Letters and artwork sent to Mike April by his wife, Heather April.

He says he has spent thousands of dollars trying to bridge the distance with video calls, but the calls rarely work as expected. For starters, April says, the image quality is terrible. His wife is reduced to a 2-by-3 inch video on his screen and enlarging the video player turns her face into pixels.

Video calls are the newest trend in revenue-generating communications in prisons and jails. In 2015, the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit working to reduce mass incarceration, estimated roughly 600 facilities across the country used video. Today, that number is likely much higher. According to their websites, Securus and JPay, two of the leading corrections-focused tech companies, provide video services to 573 facilities nationwide.

The companies bill video as a boon for prisoners and their families, offering them a convenient way to stay connected while behind bars. But many who use the video systems say they’re paying high rates—as much as $1 per minute in some places—for a second-rate service. Advocates for lower phone and video rates in prisons and jails say the companies are profiting from people’s desperation to stay in touch. When these services don’t work as promised, many struggle to get their money back and have limited consumer protections to advocate for more favorable prices.

To understand both the benefits and challenges of video calls, The Marshall Project surveyed families and friends of the incarcerated. We heard from 161 respondents in 32 states. In some cases video is the only way to stay connected. More than one-third of respondents have family members locked up in facilities—mostly jails—that bar face-to-face visits completely.

While Skype and other video platforms like FaceTime or Google Hangouts are free for people on the outside, the price of video calls varies widely from facility to facility. The costs add up quickly. On average, respondents spend $63 each month, with a handful estimating their expenditures at $400 to $500 a month. And most of the respondents rated the quality of the calls as poor or below average.

At the Charlotte County Jail in Florida, there is no visitation room and no visits through glass. Rachel Grimes can either travel to the facility for a free video call with her boyfriend or pay $16 for an hour-long call from home. During visits at the jail, despite being surrounded by other visitors, Grimes says she can usually see and hear her boyfriend clearly. From home, the quality is worse.

"It's confusing why it's so bad when I'm paying so much money for it," she said. "But then again, it's the corrections system. Everything is bad while costing a lot of money."

But video has its benefits too. Many respondents liked the convenience of video calls and say it’s easier to stay connected when they can see their relatives’ faces.

Yet only a few respondents said they’ve never had a problem with the video calls, while the majority cited flaws at least half of the time. An unlucky handful of respondents said they’ve had issues with every single call. Problems include grainy images, poor audio quality, unsynced video and audio or videos that disconnect before their allotted time.

Angela Turitto has not spoken to her fiance, Mickey Fiez, in person since he assaulted her in October 2017. She says it was an isolated incident, but because she was the victim of his crime, the Oregon Department of Corrections does not allow them to have physical contact. The only way she can see his face is through a video screen. Turitto estimates she spends roughly $150 each month communicating with Fiez.

Fiez and Turitto were not able to communicate at all before he was convicted of second-degree assault and tampering, an additional charge for sending love letters from jail, in March of last year. After his sentencing, the prison allowed the couple to make contact through letters, phone calls and video visits. "We were able to work out what happened that night, how that will never happen again, how sobriety has got to be a priority and that we can't drink together anymore," she said. "We're so much more emotionally evolved now."

Turitto says those video chats have strengthened their relationship. But it hasn't been easy, in part because the connection is unreliable and the visits will often cut off before their 30-minute time limit is up.

It can be difficult to get money back when the video breaks down, as Mike April has found. Many respondents said they’ve tried to get a refund for a poor-quality call. Only a handful said they could always or almost always get their money back. Many more said they’ve never received a refund. April said the company usually denies his refund request, blaming his internet connection.

Companies often balk at refunds even when the connection issues are on their end, or at the facility, respondents said. Prisoners and their families must consent to terms and conditions that limit companies’ liability, including a clause that offers no “guarantees about the ability of the service to work properly, completely, or at all.”

Monica Fuhrmann, who uses video calls to keep in touch with a friend in prison roughly 10 hours from her home, received an email notifying her that she was likely eligible to receive a free video credit as part of the settlement in a class-action lawsuit against JPay, the largest provider of video calls in prisons nationwide. The case involved a man who claimed he lost hundreds of dollars as a result of failed video calls with his incarcerated brother. His attorneys estimated that JPay's faulty technology cost users more than $5 million over the past decade.

JPay declined a request for comment.

Class-action lawsuits have proved an effective, although time-consuming and costly, tool in the battle for lower rates on prison calls. In 2015 the Federal Communications Commission capped rates on prison phone calls. The win was a result of a legal battle on behalf of prisoners and their families that spanned nearly two decades. In 2017, Senators Tammy Duckworth and Cory Booker, both Democrats, introduced legislation to expand the FCC’s regulatory reach to include video calls. But the bill never progressed out of committee.

April says staying connected has given his wife new hope and purpose. She was directionless and languishing in prison before they met several years into her 12-year sentence for identity theft. Her family had stopped visiting, and she didn’t have much to look forward to when she got out. Now, she is working on getting a cosmetology degree in prison and is committed to her sobriety.

To save money and see his wife more often, April has decided to uproot his life in Texas and move to Oregon. He’s looking forward to more frequent in-person visits. But he isn’t giving up on video. He just wishes the companies would use the money to make the experience better.

“They are making tons and tons of money off of this,” April said. “I am hoping that they upgrade their servers, allow for more capacity, so that we can continually talk to our loved ones behind the wall, so they can feel like they are part of something and feel like they have something to look forward to when they get out.”