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Report raises concern over MCSO’s inmate video-visitation system

PHOENIX — A new report is raising concerns about the use of video-visitation systems in jails and prisons around the country, including those in Maricopa County.

The report cited concern that prisons would end in-person visits, along with a number of other issues.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio had the system installed in November. The system allows families to speak with inmates via a video connection — think along the lines of Skype — from anywhere in the world.

Now, the system, manufactured by North Carolina-based Securus, has been called into question by a report from Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based non-profit advocacy group.

The report cited concern that correctional facilities are ending free in-person visits, along with a number of other issues.

“Organization like the American Bar Association have warned against the use of video-visitation as a replacement rather than a supplement,” Bernadette Rabuy, a policy and communications associate with Prison Policy Initiative, said.

Proponents of the system, such as Arpaio, contend the system provides a great level of convenience for the families, relatives and friends of inmates who might not be able to visit the jails in person.

“I think it’s a great program,” he said. “Anybody around the world can visit their loved ones through this new technology.”

Rabuy questioned if convenience is the true reason behind the shift away from in-person visits. MCSO’s contract with Securus guarantees MCSO a 10 percent cut of the gross revenue if there are more than 8,000 paid calls placed in a month. It also stipulates MCSO’s cut of the revenue will increase to 20 percent after the system has brought in $2.6 million.

Arpaio said there are about 182 paid calls a day. That adds up to be about 5,500 per month.

Rabuy said correctional facilities that only offer video-visitation systems could be cost-prohibitive for lower-income families to call inmates.

In Maricopa County, a 20-minute video-visitation currently costs about $5, but the county’s contract with Securus states the base rate is $12.95 for a 20-minute call.

Arpaio said the rate would eventually reach that level. He maintained it is a cost that could essentially pay for itself.

“As far as the payment is concerned, look what they’re saving if they don’t have to do parking,” Arpaio said. “It’s a security issue for us too because a lot of people try to bring in contraband.”

MCSO offers one free 20-minute video visit per week. Rabuy said most places get two or three videos visits per week.

Rabuy said organizations like Prison Policy Initiative are seeking oversight and would like the FCC to have more control of the system’s usage.