Like many Oklahomans with an incarcerated family member, Sharla Halencak hasn’t seen her son Clinton in more than a year.
Halencak used to visit Clinton, who is serving a 12-year sentence for eluding a police officer, nearly every weekend. Visits became more difficult when he was transferred from the Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center in Vinita, an hour’s drive from Halencak’s Tulsa home, to the Howard McLeod Correctional Center in Atoka. She last saw him in late 2019.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, the state Department of Corrections has canceled or heavily restricted family visitation since mid-March. Halencak has since relied on prepaid phone calls and handwritten notes to stay in touch.
“I haven’t been able to visualize my son,” she said. “So much of what goes in there is unreported, and seeing them we actually can visualize that they’re being kept safe and if something else is going on that we should know about.”
As Oklahoma inmates wait to get the COVID-19 vaccine, in-person visitation remains canceled indefinitely. But prisoners will soon gain access to technology that the public has used to stay connected during the pandemic.
Securus Technologies, the communications provider for the corrections department, has started installing WiFi and video visitation portals in prisons across the state. Securus spokesperson Jade Trombotta said in an email that inmates will receive free tablets this spring and gain access to video calls by the fall. A 20-minute video call will cost $5.95, about $2 more than a 20-minute phone call.
The tablets run a modified version of Android and can only access content approved by JPay, a subsidiary of Securus. Prison officials may monitor messages sent and received via the tablets. Video calling will only be available at portals installed in cell pods.
Prisoner advocates say video calls and tablets can be effective communication tools, but argue that high fees charged by Securus and competitor GTL financially exploit inmate family members who disproportionately face economic hardships. One-third of inmate families take on debt while supporting an incarcerated family member, according to a 2015 report by the Fines and Fees Justice Center
The technology, though expensive to use, often isn’t reliable. A 2017 National Institute of Corrections report on video visitation technology warned that many systems are poorly installed and plagued with bad video and audio quality.
When Clinton was incarcerated in 2018 at the Washita County Jail, Halencak would regularly use video chat to talk with him. She said the connection was spotty at best, with little recourse if a called dropped or video connection ended early.
“One time the call dropped within the first two minutes,” she said. “I was able to get my money back that one time, but other times it froze up within the first three minutes and they said, ‘Oh well, you got it, you can still hear them.’”
Despite her previous poor experience, Halencak said she plans to use the technology regularly once it’s available.
The prospect of staying more connected without driving hours and going through prison security is also exciting for Chele Mickle, a Jenks woman whose brother Charles is incarcerated at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville.
“I think video calls would be wonderful, especially for people that don’t have the means to travel,” Mickle said. “Or like myself, I have three children that are still in school, and since it’s not my boyfriend or husband, visits are not my top priority.”
Tablet Fees Add Up
Securus and competitor Global Tel Link say their tablets help inmates access education courses, more efficiently file grievances and stay connected to the outside world.
Research and advocacy groups have criticized the companies for charging above-market rates for services ranging from text messages to movie rentals.
A March 2019 Prison Policy Initiative report found that prison tablets are often unreliable and expensive to use. Securus and GTL guarantee the state corrections department a portion of tablet revenue and may end tablet service if the devices don’t generate enough revenue.
The U.S. corrections tablet industry is a lucrative business. After giving away more than 50,000 tablets to New York prisoners in 2018, Securus expected to generate $9 million in revenue over five years.
On Feb. 12, Oklahoma Watch submitted a public records request for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ service agreement with Securus Technologies. The request is currently under review by the agency’s legal department.
Two years ago, GTL gave away thousands of tablets to West Virginia inmates and recouped the cost by charging prisoners and their families steep fees for content that’s available for free to the general public.
The Appalachian Prison Book Project, a West Virginia-based nonprofit that provides books and educational materials to inmates across a seven-state region, analyzed the state’s contract with GTL and found that inmates were being charged 5 cents per minute to read books that are available on Project Gutenberg’s free digital library.
“In West Virginia, the average prison job pays between four and 58 cents per hour,” said Lydia Walker, digital communications coordinator at the nonprofit. “If you did the math and got to an average of 30 cents per hour, a person would have to work about 66 hours to read a book like “1984”.”
The federal government does not regulate prices for prison video calls, text messaging or media material. In 2017, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., proposed the Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act, which would have set caps on rates service providers can charge and set minimum standards for video and audio quality. The bill received a hearing but stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mickle, who spends at least $350 per month on phone calls and commissary items for her brother in Holdenville, said she’s prepared to spend upwards of $500 every month once the tablets are distributed. While she’s been able to keep her job during the pandemic and can afford to foot the bill, she worries some will have to choose between staying connected or ensuring their loved one is well fed.
“It’s just one of those things where you have to accept it or they suffer,” Mickle said. “You’re at their mercy, just like the commissary.”
Future of In-Person Visits
As video visitation technology gained popularity in U.S. jails and prisons in the early to mid-2010s, many facilities decided to ditch in-person visitation altogether.
While groups like the National Institute of Corrections and American Correctional Association reject the idea that video calls can replace in-person visits, communications companies may persuade corrections administrators into thinking differently. Prior to May 2015, Securus required that jails and state prisons end in-person visitation before agreeing to a service agreement.
Inmates at facilities without in-person visits are left cut off from their families when the technology fails. A 2019 Prison Policy Initiative report found that video systems at some correctional facilities were left unrepaired for up to three months.
Jails, where inmates are generally awaiting trial or serving a sentence of one year or less, are much more likely than prisons to end in-person visitation. But family members of Oklahoma inmates worry that the corrections department will favor video visitation and they won’t get to see their loved ones as often.
“You just can’t make sure they’re okay without seeing them face to face,” Halencok said. “Lots of them have depression and mental health issues,
Corrections department spokesman Justin Wolf said video visits will supplement, not replace, in-person visitation once the pandemic eases. Studies indicate that quality in-person visitation can reduce prison violence and help maintain family bonds.
“Visitation is a significant portion of an inmates’ recovery and staying connected to the outside world, which we want,” Wolf said. “We want people to stay connected and inmates to keep connections with their loved ones.”
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss