Prison 'Skype' Replaces Visitation 

Uintah County Jail enforces new video-chat program.

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Brittany Stoddard's boyfriend, Levi Copeland, is in jail serving up to a year-long sentence for drug possession. While at the Duchesne County Jail awaiting trial, he was then moved to the state prison in Draper post-conviction and later to the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, before ending up at the Uintah County Jail in Vernal a few weeks ago. That last move was through the Inmate Placement Program, which allows the Utah Department of Corrections to relocate inmates to county facilities to address bed shortages.

Stoddard has done her best to keep in touch with Copeland, 25, visiting him at the various facilities as often as she can to help him feel a connection to home. But when he was moved to Uintah County, Stoddard was stunned to find out that the jail in Vernal no longer allows in-person visitation, and if she wanted to see Copeland she would have to pay for a video chat service.

Uintah County Jail commander Irene Brown declined to be interviewed for this story. Uintah County Sheriff Vance Norton and Public Information Officer Brian Fletcher did not return repeated calls for comment.

Uintah County has contracted with a national company called GettingOut, which provides video conference services between inmates and their family and friends. If you want to video call with an inmate, you can either download the software to call from home (if you have high-speed Internet access), or you can visit the jail in Vernal and use the company's kiosk. A 15-minute call costs $7.50 at the on-site kiosk or just over $10 if you call from home. But it's not a flat rate; the company also charges additional fees for using the service. According to GettingOut's customer service, if you pre-pay for the call at the on-site kiosk, the $7.50 call will turn out to be closer to $12.50. If you pre-pay directly through the company by calling them, that same $7.50 call will cost you closer to $15.

Stoddard works as a housekeeper at a nursing home, and brings home $9.50 per hour. "This is just torture," she says. "I can't afford to be making all these calls."

Molly Prince, president of the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network (UPAN), says forcing visitors to pay is exploitative. "If [video calls] are provided as an option," Prince says, "that can be great, because it allows family members who can't physically get to Vernal a way to still connect with their loved ones. But to completely take away contact visits discriminates against people who do not have the money to afford it."

Prince, who is not only the president of UPAN, but is also a licensed clinical social worker, says that in-person visits are critical to an inmate's ability to successfully transition back into the real world once they're released. "The research shows that contact visits, and being able to hold someone's hand, helps soothe people who are incarcerated and helps manage moods—thus reducing anger," she says.

Prince says services like GettingOut's video software are just the latest in a long line of high costs for the families of inmates. "Even basic phone calls can cost anywhere from $3.50 to $15 for a 15-30 minute call," Prince says. "Inmate communication providers exploit the needs of prisoners and their families. The impact of a child to not be able to see their father or mother except on a little phone or computer screen is enormous."

After the Uintah County Jail told Stoddard she was required to use the paid video calls to visit with Copeland, she contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

"This is a big problem," says Anna Brower, strategic communications manager at ACLU of Utah. "Video interaction is a very poor substitute for in-person visits. And not just in this situation. If you think of a parent on a business trip trying to video chat with a child, it's just not the same. But beyond that, we're talking about [in-person visits] that used to be free, and we already know that quality visitation leads to lower recidivism which the state of Utah ostensibly cares quite a bit about. So, it shocked us to hear about this, because it excludes a whole class of low-income people who just don't have the money to use such an expensive service."

Brower says that while it doesn't appear thus far that a jail ceasing all in-person visitations is illegal, "it's just plain wrong," and puts even more of a burden on families who already have to figure out the new policies and procedures every time their inmate family member is moved, because the local county sheriffs control the rules over each facility.

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