As one jail's video visitation technology breaks, a larger battle continues

Families in Pontotoc County, Okla., have been unable to visit inmates at the local jail for the past three weeks due to a computer failure, the sheriff says.

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    In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, an inmate in the maximum security wing watches television at the Accountability and Restitution Center (ARC) in Tumwater, Wash. Video visiting technology at the Pontotoc County Justice Center in Oklahoma has been broken for three weeks, leaving families unable to visit.
    Steve Bloom/The Olympian via AP/File
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Families have been unable to visit inmates at an Oklahoma county jail for the past three weeks after a technology problem left the jail’s video visitation system inoperable.

The video visiting system used at the Pontotoc County Justice Center, in Ada, Okla., has been nonfunctional due to a computer issue and it’s unclear when it will be fixed, John Christian, the Pontotoc County sheriff, told the Ada News on Wednesday.

The systems, which use Skype-like video technology that allows inmates’ families to make a call from their home or any computer with Internet access, have become increasingly popular with local jails as a means to cut costs, though advocates for justice reform say they put a high burden on inmates’ families.

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More than 500 jails in 43 states now use the technology, according to a report released last year by the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

Advocacy groups are particularly alarmed by the systems’ high cost – one Texas county jail charges $20 for a 20 minute call – and the isolation presented by the technology. Inmates frequently make calls from special pods or day rooms, not a central visiting room.

Mr. Christian told the paper that the suspension wasn’t related to rumors that he had stopped visitation due to inmates misbehaving.

“Visitation is a privilege — it’s not a right,” he said, a comment that echoed the perspective of many local sheriffs in an ongoing fight over rates’ inmates pay for phone calls.

Pontotoc County’s technology failure comes in the midst of a court battle between the Federal Communication Commission and several of the large private companies that offer phone and other communication services to jails and prisons across the country.

In November, the FCC voted to cap rates charged to inmates for both in-state and state-to-state phone calls.

But that effort was halted earlier this month after the DC Circuit Court of Appeals granted a partial stay of the FCC’s order that was sought by several of the largest prison phone providers. The companies were also joined by the state of Oklahoma, which said the FCC had overstepped its authority.

The court’s ruling capped call rates at 21 cents a minute for debit calls and 25 cents for collect calls, while the FCC had attempted to set rates at 11 cents per minute.

The private phone companies, which have expanded over time into offering video visits and rudimentary electronic messaging, have maintained what advocacy groups and the FCC say amounts to a monopoly on providing services to jails and prisons across the country.

The companies say that the FCC’s caps on so-called ancillary fees endanger their ability to pay what are known as site commissions, a portion of their profits that go to local jails and prisons. These portions can range anywhere from 30 to 90 percent, according to advocacy groups.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who voted against the FCC’s cap in November, said in a statement earlier this month that video calls are also outside the regulator’s authority.

“A video call is not a telephone service, much less a payphone service and any decisions to the contrary would set a harmful precedent,” he said.

In Pontotoc County, Christian, the sheriff, said it would be costly to replace the video visitation system if it can’t be fixed, noting that he would take donations from citizens to fix it. He took a hard line on criticism of the jail’s policies.

“If people have an issue they can write the inmate. Inmates can still call from their pods, or better yet, the family could bail them out,” he told the Ada News. "Don’t commit a crime, you will not go to jail, and then you can support your family"

But advocacy groups such as PPI argue that in addition to their cost, video visits and electronic messaging often suffer from service glitches and other limitations.

“The promise of these new services is often tempered by a relentless focus on turning incarcerated people and their families into revenue streams for both private and public coffers,” wrote Stephen Raher, a PPI legal analyst, in a report in January.

 
 
 

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