Only as far away as the phone? Video visitation and prison call centres

Two stories in the news this week pertaining to prisoners’ contact with the outside world throw up some troubling questions about the nature and purpose of contact for those incarcerated.

First, many thanks to Shaul Cohen for these links to the New York Times’ piece on ‘Video Visitation’, which details the US District of Columbia’s switch to video visitation, a growing trend in the corrections field. To proponents, the video systems provide a more convenient, safer, thriftier alternative to in-person visits, reducing the need for visitors to travel to penitentiaries, to stand in line and be searched ahead of in-person visits, and the disruption to the prison regime caused by bringing prisoners to visitation suites and ensuring the security of the institution during visits. However, as the NYT reports, critics, including prisoner advocates and corrections officers concerned with how prisoners fare once they are released, fear that the video visits allow less meaningful contact with family and could damage inmates’ morale. The report quotes Angela Davis, who after her second video visit with her son, 21, said although video visitation was much more convenient, she missed watching her son walk into the visitation room and take a seat in front of her. While he walked she would observe him to make sure he had no scratches or scars while examining his body language and gestures. “He doesn’t know that, but that’s what I’d be doing,” Ms. Davis said. “I can’t really do that if he’s just sitting there and all I see is his face. You can’t really do that on a monitor.”

Sylvia Lane, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia corrections department, claimed that the video system would double the number of visits possible each day to 400, while eliminating long queues and invasive security checks, and also lowering staff costs, saving $420,000 a year, about 64% of the $660,000 budgeted for visiting costs in 2012. She also said it would keep the jail more secure because inmates do not have to be moved around as much, and the risk of visitors smuggling contraband into jail is drastically reduced.

Although at present in-person visits typically remain an option, there is a sense in which growing familiarity with online communication such as Skype may mitigate against the negative perception of video visitation. However, a more troubling extension to this argument is made by Lt. Col. Kim Spadaro, the director of Florida’s, Broward County (which adopted a video system in 2007) Department of Detention and president of the American Jail Association:

“Either way, they’re not able to have physical contact with their family members,” she said. “They stay right in their cell, they’re on their video screen, they have their privacy, and they’re still having basically the same visit as the one they had when they’re separated by glass.” In other words, because in-person visitation is typically behind shatter-proof glass and no physical contact is possible, video visitation is ‘basically the same’ in the eyes of the establishment.

What isn’t the same, though, is the level of scrutiny of the visits themselves. As the DC corrections department information video makes clear, amongst the straightforward demonstrations of how to register for visits and book them online, the need for ID at the visitation centre and the various advantages of time and money savings for both visitors and institutions, all visits are ‘monitored and subject to recording’ (9:49). There’s no further information about the storage or use of these recordings, but one might anticipate that the knowledge that their conversations are being surveilled and filed might deter prisoners and visitors from speaking as openly as they might like to…

Video visitation raises all kinds of questions about how carceral geographers theorise visitation and visiting spaces. Although the visiting suite inside prison has been thought of as a liminal space between freedom and confinement for both prisoners and visitors (Moran 2011), video visitation casts this conceptualisation in a new light, both by denying prisoners the opportunity to meet face to face with loved ones away from their everyday carceral surroundings, and by bringing the prison, albeit in its virtual incarnation of online bookings and video screens, into new spatial contexts – the DC General Hospital in this case – with the potential to reach right into the homes of prisoners’ friends and families.

In the other story this week, The Guardian revealed the UK Ministry of Justice’s plans to support the establishment of call centres inside prisons, as part of prisoners’ work programmes. Not only could the scheme ‘lower costs and overheads’ for companies participating, but it could provide prisoners with paid work inside prison, contributing to their rehabilitation and increasing their prospects of employment after release. Quite apart from the fact that prisoners’ pay of £3 per day potentially undercuts pay rates for free workers (which MoJ defended by arguing that “All contracts with outside employers must comply with a strict code of practice which sets out that prisoners cannot be used to replace existing jobs in the community. Prisoner wages, for those in closed prisons, are set by prison governors and companies have no control over the level of payment”), there are concerns that putting call centres inside prisons would be one of the first instances of prisoners serving lengthy sentences coming into direct commercial contact with the public, and concerns about prison call centres’ compliance with data protection legislation.

Scholars have already pointed to conventional call centres’ panoptical surveillance strategies, using Foucault to theorise these regimes (e.g. Ball & Margulis 2011), but the idea of the prison acting as a site of ‘offshore outsourcing’ of call centre activity, where not only are wages very low but prisoners are also in the right time zone and have the appropriately reassuring regional accents, is intriguing. Debate over prisoners’ low wages and the effect of these on the competitiveness of firms employing free labour have been ongoing for some time, but it isn’t usually in relation to a ‘customer-facing’ commercial role such as this one. (Although Jackson (2011) notes that prisoners already work in call centres in India).

Two things seem to link video visitation in DC and the proposed prisoner call centres in the UK. Firstly the financial advantage that can be gained from deploying technology to connect prisoners and the outside world, be that either in cost savings for penitentiaries organising fewer face-to-face visits, or higher profits for commercial firms paying less for their call centre workers. Second is the nature of  contact – which in both cases is technologically mediated, monitored and recorded, and disembodied, either through video screen or telephone headset, and which arguably serves to separate the prisoner ever further from family and community.