Zooming In To Prisoner-Family Visitation During COVID-19

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For Robert Pezzeca, serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania, the use of Zoom for video visitation meant he saw his 22-year-old daughter for the third time in her life. “I sat there for 45 mins watching my daughter eat dinner, laugh, smile, tell me stories, burp & I loved every second of it. Even when she started crying at the end,” he told Slate. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, prisons stopped in-person visitation. To connect, inmates and family members have no option but phone calls, video calls, and electronic messaging, often via tablets and terminals from Global Tel Link and Securus, two companies that dominate the prison communication industry. Last year, the Prison Policy Initiative reported the high costs of a 15-minute call from a local jail: $21.97 in Wisconsin, $22.56 in Michigan, and $24.82 in Arkansas. The Marshall Project estimated that prisoners spent an average of $63 per month video chatting with loved ones. Advocacy groups including Color of Change, Worth Rises, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums are demanding free prison and jail communication “now and forever.”

Some prisons and jails have provided limited numbers of free or discounted phone calls, video calls, or emails. The UCLA School of Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project says 17 state prison systems have offered some remote access to video visitation, and 34 have offered access to phone calls. Pennsylvania now allows inmates one 45-minute video call per week using Zoom, depending on scheduling availability. Zoom’s Priscilla McCarthy Barolo said the state was the only one so far using the software for family visitation. Pennsylvania began offering Zoom visits on March 19. The program has had enormous demand: Between March 19 and April 26, there were 20,838 video visits, prompting the state to require scheduling visits a month in advance.

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