Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong name for the January 2015 Prison Policy Initiative report. It’s called “Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails.”
A new system at the San Luis Obispo County Jail allows inmates to meet with their visitors via streaming video, similar to Skype, a system the Sheriff’s Office hopes will lower demand for on-site visits and help family members who live far away connect with loved ones.
But users of the new video system can expect to pay a pretty penny for the service, and federal regulators are just beginning to examine the programs to determine whether the industry needs more oversight.
The video system that launched this past week has been about two years in the making in San Luis Obispo County, where changes in state law have substantially increased the jail’s inmate population.
Visitors have had to wait for hours in the jail’s main lobby in order to secure a seat for a visit. Often, they’re turned away when slots fill up.
Those on-site visits are not going away. But in addition to offering virtual visits via video, the new system allows visitors to schedule in-person visits online, reducing their travel time and county staff time.
This is just another avenue for them to be able to have access … and hopefully make their time here a little bit better.
Tim Olivas, San Luis Obispo County undersheriff
“With this, there’s no more rolling the dice,” Undersheriff Tim Olivas said Thursday. “People can still show up during visiting hours without registering, but you take a chance.”
The system doesn’t cost the county, with the contractor installing the hardware for free in exchange for profits made from charging visitors to use it. Once the contractor recoups the $167,000 installation cost, the county will receive a commission off the gross revenue — 15 percent the first year and 20 percent annually after that.
The money will go to the county Inmate Welfare Fund, which provides GED and vocational programs at the jail, inmate medical supplies and jail transportation.
Local attorneys told The Tribune that the video service is long overdue and that they support efforts to increase an inmate’s connections with their support groups, connections vital to a person’s success in getting out — and staying out — of jail.
“Of course, originally, we really saw the benefits to the family, and to the inmate, having that opportunity to make that connection with the family,” Olivas said. “This is just another avenue for them to be able to have access … and hopefully make their time here a little bit better.”
While on-site visits have always been free of charge, the new video visitation costs visitors $15 for 20 minutes and $30 for 40 minutes.
Olivas said the Sheriff’s Office surveyed several vendors before choosing Florida-based Global Tel-Link to operate the system and maintain the registration and scheduling website. Olivas said the Sheriff’s Office already contracts with the firm for its telecommunications.
According to the company’s website, Kern, Glenn and Tulare counties also use GTL video visitation services.
To access the system, visitors register on the GTL website, create a username, provide personal, financial and identifying information, and receive a password. Once logged on, the user may schedule an on-site or video visit. There is no fee to register or log on to the system.
Once the contractor recoups the $167,000 installation cost, San Luis Obispo County will receive a commission off the gross revenue — 15 percent the first year and 20 percent annually after that.
The video visitation can be done with a camera-enabled desktop computer, laptop or tablet. Inside the jail, the inmate will be logged on to one of 17 video-screen consoles installed throughout the jail and the minimum-security Honor Farm. The interaction is similar to a conversation on Skype, though the inmate must hold a receiver to hear and speak.
Inmates can receive one video visit per day, compared with just two one-hour on-site visits per week.
On-site visitors who use the website to book an appointment need only show up at least 15 minutes beforehand and present one valid form of ID. Video visitors must log on to the system at the scheduled time and present a valid ID to correctional staff over the screen.
All of the normal visitation rules apply, and correctional staff monitor the visits and can terminate them for violations.
‘A new era’
Olivas said a catalyst in adopting the system was the San Luis Obispo County Public Defender’s Office, which must have access to its jailed clients. Since the implementation in 2011 of Assembly Bill 109, known as state prison realignment, people convicted of certain low-level crimes that would once land them in state prison now serve sentences in county jails, adding to the demand for on-site visits.
It’s so important in terms of rehabilitation. Meeting with their families is just critical to their success.
Patricia Ashbaugh, San Luis Obispo County public defender
Patricia Ashbaugh, head of the local Public Defender’s Office, said Friday that attorneys in her office have long discussed the need for an alternative, though her office was not involved in selecting a provider.
Like inmates’ family members, attorneys had to show up at the jail and hope to secure one of the jail’s few private attorney rooms. Ashbaugh said they regularly need to meet briefly with clients, and in cases where legal documents don’t need to be signed or exchanged, the video option could streamline visits.
“With the rise in the jail population, visitation has become a real issue,” Ashbaugh said. “I think the sheriff has done all he can to accommodate (the demand), but right now with a fixed number of rooms and phones, it certainly has become an issue.”
Beyond the legal realm, however, Ashbaugh said that from a defense perspective, any increased support to an inmate from their families is shown to be essential to an inmate’s well-being.
“It’s so important in terms of rehabilitation. Meeting with their families is just critical to their success,” Ashbaugh said. “It’s the rehab aspect, that those struggling with substance abuse or mental illness have a support network out there and have regular access to those networks.”
Under the new system, lawyers and medical personnel can register as professional visitors and their video conversations will not be monitored or recorded under attorney-client privilege or patient confidentiality, Olivas said. All on-site visits between nonprofessional visitors and inmates will continue to be recorded, as will video visits.
Ashbaugh said she takes the Sheriff’s Office at its word on those privacy concerns.
“The reality is that when we go to the jail now, we can be monitored, too,” Ashbaugh said. “But I think Sheriff (Ian) Parkinson respects our role in the system and finds the work of the Public Defender’s Office important.”
“I think he recognizes it’s a new time and a new era,” she said.
A captive market
In October, the Federal Communications Commission announced it would crack down on companies that provide telephone visitation services to state prisons and county jails, placing caps on what commissioners called “excessive rates and egregious fees” that targeted “society’s most vulnerable: people trying to stay in touch with loved ones serving time in jail or prison.”
In its order, the commission also said it would analyze the use, costs and rates of video visitation services, and whether they could circumvent traditional inmate phone services.
While relatively new, video visitation has attracted its critics for some of the same reasons. As with phone services, many correctional facilities make a profit off video services in contracts with the providers.
In a January 2015 report “Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails,” the nonprofit criminal justice think tank Prison Policy Initiative found that more than 500 facilities in 43 states and the District of Columbia used the systems.
The organization reported that some video providers required jails to eventually stop providing in-person visits. The video usage rates are steep, the report said, and providers and facilities alike have no incentive to cap rates.
“In order to stimulate demand for their low-quality product, jails and video visitation companies work together to shut down the traditional in-person visitation rooms and instead require families to pay up to $1.50 per minute for visits via computer screen,” the report said.
It cited the high costs to families of the incarcerated — some of the poorest families in the country, it said — and noted that the people most likely to use the services are also the least likely to have access to a computer with a webcam and necessary bandwidth, and that the technology has been poorly designed and implemented.
“It is clear that the video visitation industry leaders have not been listening to their customers and have not responded to consistent complaints about camera placement, the way that seating is bolted into the ground (and) the placement of video visitation terminals in pods of cells,” the report said.
On Friday, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla reiterated that the county’s contract with the company has no clause requiring the jail to cease on-site visits and the Sheriff’s Office has no intention of ever doing so.
In an April 2015 statement to the International Business Times, a GTL spokesman said the company does not require its clients to eliminate on-site visitation, and that it sees video visitation as a “complement.”
New SLO County Jail inmate visitation
The San Luis Obispo County Jail activated its new video visitation system for inmates Wednesday. Here’s how it works, as well as how the system’s scheduling component affects traditional on-site visitation.
- Visitors register at www.gtlvisitme.com, where they will be prompted to enter an email address and other personal information such as a driver’s license or ID number, and select the San Luis Obispo County Jail in a drop menu.
- Once a visitor has registered a username, they must check the email inbox used to register to access a temporary password and complete the process.
- Visits must be scheduled at least one day in advance but no more than seven days in advance.
- Cost for online visitation is $15 for 20 minutes and $30 for 40 minutes.
- Video visits must be canceled at least 24 hours in advance. Full refunds will only be issued if the cancellation is made more than 48 hours before the scheduled visit and half refunds will be issued between 24 and 48 hours. No refunds will be issued if the visit is stopped because of inappropriate behavior or other policy violations.
- Inmates are limited to one visit a day.
- On-site visits may now be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance at www.gtlvisitme.com, free of charge.
- Visitors with a scheduled on-site visit must arrive at the County Jail main lobby at least 15 minutes early with one valid form of identification.
- On-site visitors may still show up at the main jail lobby before normal visiting hours without a reservation, but visits are not guaranteed and are limited because of space.
- More information can be found at www.slosheriff.org/faq.php?id=5.