Washington Department of Corrections expands video visitations statewide

Similar to Skype, video visits are conducted through approved visitors’ home computers and video kiosks in the facilities.

After completing a successful pilot project at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, the Prisons Division recently began offering video visitations in facilities throughout the state. The first test visit was conducted on Valentine’s Day 2013 at Mission Creek and quickly became an extension of the facility’s existing visitation policy. Today video visits are offered at several facilities across Washington, with all prisons scheduled to be up and running by February 2014.

“Video visits don’t replace in-person visits but they do provide additional opportunities for friends and family members – particularly those who are unable to travel long distances – to connect with their loved ones, which is important for prison and public safety,” said Dan Pacholke, Assistant Secretary for the Prisons Division. He added that building and maintaining close relationships, especially with very young children and elderly friends and relatives, is good for offenders, their friends and family, and ultimately improves working conditions for staff as well.

The Vera Institute of Justice is conducting a three-year study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, to see whether access to video visitation improves the nature and frequency of contact between offenders in Washington state prisons and their families and friends. Vera will also assess whether video visitation access improves offender compliance with custodial rules while in prison, and if it contributes to lower recidivism rates after release. Research has shown that offenders who receive regular visits are less likely to commit violent infractions.

“Vera is committed to exploring innovative programs that have the potential to lower recidivism rates and create stronger families and communities,” said Allon Yaroni, Ph.D., who is leading the study at Vera. “We are proud to partner with the  Washington State Department of Corrections to study the impact of video visitation and its ability to help prisoners stay connected to their loved ones and lead a crime-free life after release.”

One potential advantage of providing video visits is to improve staff and offender safety by mitigating the need to search for incoming contraband.

“During visits, staff members can quickly end the transmission mid-stream if necessary, and they can review previous visits to ensure rules are being followed,” explained Devon Schrum, Security Director for the Department. “Those visitors who violate the rules may be removed from the offenders’ approved visitor list.”

Similar programs in several other states experience great success. In two years of Ohio’s video visitation program, only one offender has broken visitation rules during a visit. The knowledge that the visit was being actively monitored and recorded was enough to immediately restore compliance without any future incident.

The visits cost friends and families of offenders $12.95 per 30-minute visit with fees paid to the vendor, JPay. They can be extended for an additional $12.95 for 30 minutes if no other visit is scheduled behind the one that’s ending. While there is a monetary cost to friends and families, video visits can in some cases decrease costs by eliminating the need to travel across state and, in some cases, very long distances.

Funds generated by video visits cover the cost of high-speed Internet connections and maintenance of equipment (kiosks and monitors in facilities). A small percent of gross proceeds go to the Offender Betterment Fund, which supports various programs and equipment purchases provided to offenders throughout the state that can’t be purchased with taxpayer dollars.

Video visits take place during designated times that vary from facility to facility. The visits are expected to be scheduled around offenders’ existing programs. Visits may be scheduled by people who are already on an offender’s approved visitor list via the JPay website. Offenders will have to accept a video visit request in order for the visit to be scheduled. No limit currently exists on how far out a video visit can be scheduled.