- Prisons across the US have suspended in-person visits for family members of inmates amid the coronavirus outbreak.
- Video chatting and phone calls have long been available to many inmates, but these remote visits can be expensive. The federal bureau and fewer than 20 state prison systems have provided some compensation to inmates for these video calls.
- Only one state – Pennsylvania – is using Zoom to provide video visitation to its inmates. More than 20,000 Zoom video visits have occurred in the state since March 19.
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Some US prisons are providing free video-calling to inmates as family visits have been restricted to control the coronavirus outbreak that has hit jails especially hard.
In-person visits, other than attorney visits, have been banned at all prisons in the federal and state systems in the US. Since states began implementing these limitations in March, inmates have had to rely on phone calls and videoconferencing to replace in-person visits from family members and loved ones.
Pennsylvania is the only state to that appears to allow remote prison visits to be conducted over the popular videoconferencing service Zoom. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, more than 21,000 Zoom calls from inmates have taken place since March 19. Slate reported that all inmates in Pennsylvania are allowed one free 45-minute Zoom call a week, although the massive flood of interest from inmates’ loved ones has already resulted in significant scheduling delays.
Zoom did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment. However, a Zoom spokesperson told Slate that Pennsylvania was the only state it knew of that was using its software for remote visits from prison.
Inmates have long had access to telecommunication services in order to communicate with outside parties through email, phone calls, and video chats. However, these services come at prices that can be unmanageable: A report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that the cost of 15-minute phone calls for prisoners could exceed $20 in some states, including Arkansas, Michigan, and Missouri. Inmate wages nationwide average between $0.14 to $1.41 per hour.
Now that inmates have to rely on remote communication entirely, some states are providing inmates with free and discounted phone and video calls. According to the UCLA School of Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, 34 states are providing some sort of compensation to inmates for phone calls, while 17 states are providing compensation for inmates' video calls.
However, only a limited number of prison bureaus are providing entirely free remote visits to inmates. Some states limit these calls to 15 minutes once or twice a week, The Appeal reported. The Federal Bureau of Prison on April 9 made remote calling free to federal prisoners - including video calls, which are only available to female inmates - after US senators pressed the bureau to take action.
Prisons have become home to massive outbreaks of COVID-19, with many inmates testing positive without showing any symptoms. Social distancing is difficult in the close confines of prisons, and inmates often cannot adhere to other disease-preventing guidelines like using hand sanitizer, which is considered contraband. Riots have broken out in prisons in Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina over the poor conditions inside.
Hundreds of thousands of inmates around the world who are deemed low risk and have pre-existing health conditions have been released in recent weeks in an attempt to prevent the disease's spread. However, thousands of prisoners and guards are still testing positive for the disease.
More than 12,000 inmates across the US have confirmed cases of coronavirus, and nearly 200 have died from the disease, according to UCLA's data.