As Utah jails embrace video technology, in-person visits are being eliminated

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Video visitation at county jails in Utah has become more commonplace. The Davis County jail, where people who come to visit their loved ones, up to twice a week on location, speak to them through a video monitor rather than a face-to-face or barrier visit. More than half of Utah's county jails now do video-only visitation, a practice that is concerning to advocates and upsetting to those who have family behind bars.

Farmington • On a chilly Thursday evening, Lisa and Dan Cappelli bundle up their 2-week-old granddaughter and head to the Davis County jail.

They are going to visit Lisa’s son, who was arrested for a probation violation just two days after his daughter, Nellie, was born.

But the Davis County jail, like more than half of Utah’s county jails, offer only video visitation. This means that even though the Cappellis are in the same building just a few hundred feet away from their son, he can see Nellie only on a computer screen.

During their visit, the Woods Cross couple prop Nellie, dressed in a Halloween-themed onesie, in front of the video camera. They hold a phone receiver that’s about as big as Nellie near her ear, and then they tell her to say “Hi!” to her dad.

The Cappellis say it’s important for their son to see his daughter. They want her to hear his voice, even if it’s only through a phone.

“It’s his baby; it’s his daughter,” Lisa Cappelli said. “He misses her.”

The Cappellis hope their son is out of jail by Christmas — which means weeks will go by before he can see his little girl in person, let alone hold her.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lisa and Dan Cappelli express their opinion about video visitation at the Davis County Jail following a visit to see Lisa's son who is in jail. The couple is currently taking care of her son's 2-week-old baby. Video visitation at county jails in Utah has become more commonplace. The Davis County jail, where people who come to visit their loved ones, up to twice a week on location, speak to them through a video monitor rather than a face-to-face or barrier visit. More than half of Utah's county jails now do video-only visitation, a practice that is concerning to advocates and upsetting to those who have family behind bars.

Video visitation is nothing new at the Davis County jail, where visitors have used this system for the past 12 years. But it is becoming increasingly common in Utah to eliminate any form of in-person visitation in favor of video calls — either calls set up from home or by traveling to the jail to talk through a screen. Thirteen of Utah’s 25 counties with jails now offer solely video visits at their facilities.

Jail officials tout the technology as a safe and efficient way for people to keep in contact with those behind bars. But the trend is concerning to prisoner advocates and at least one Utah lawmaker, who worry that cutting off in-person visits could result in worse outcomes for inmates once they are released.

‘It’s really impersonal’

County jails across the country have signed on to new technology in recent years that allow inmates to make Skype-like video calls for a price that can vary widely.

But with this technology, a growing number of jails have eliminated all forms of in-person visitation in favor of video kiosks. More than a dozen jails in Utah have gone this route, and only four — Summit, Duchesne, Carbon and Beaver — offer the option of a traditional “barrier visit,” where the inmate and visitor are separated by glass, or a video call.

This change has been met with mixed reviews by Utah inmates and their families. Some like being able to place a video call from home rather than traveling to the county jail, allowing them to stay connected even if an inmate is hundreds of miles away. But those who want to visit at the jail lament the at-times glitchy technology and the inability to see their loved one in person.

Daniel Ortiz still remembers what it was like trying to visit with his family while he was in the Weber County jail eight years ago. He never made meaningful eye contact with those who came to see him. Their gaze was always focused down, looking at his image on the screen. They never looked at the camera.

“It took out the intimate connection people make when they see each other face-to-face,” Ortiz wrote in a letter sent from the prison in Gunnison, which is part of the Utah State Prison.

Now in a state lockup, Ortiz has the ability to have what are called “contact visits,” when he can have some physical interaction with visitors such as a handshake or a hug. But he says it’s still a struggle to maintain a connection with people who are important to him, including his daughter. And those family connections, he said, are important.

Ortiz has been a drug addict since he was 13, he wrote, and is incarcerated for a robbery he says he did to get money for heroin.

“I made a lot of bad decisions I am not proud of,” he wrote. “What hurts me the most is the damage I’ve caused my loved ones, especially my daughter who barely knows me and is growing up without the love of her father.”

When Britnee Webb thinks back to visiting her father at the Davis County jail a decade ago, she mostly remembers feeling frustrated.

Traveling to and from Davis County would take most of an afternoon, and the deputies strictly enforced visitor rules and a dress code. A visit lasted only 20 minutes, with her family members shuffling between two seats and phone receivers to talk to her dad.

“It’s really impersonal,” she said. “You drive a long way to not really even get to see them. Other people are there, and it’s noisy and distracting.”

Webb, who is the women’s issues director for the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, said her organization worries about the number of jails now offering video-only visitation.

“We’re not OK with it,” she said. “In-person and especially contact visits are what we want to see. That’s the most beneficial for children and for reducing recidivism rates [when inmates are] involved in their families.”

Eliminating in-person visits

This trend is hardly unique to Utah. The Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based criminal justice think tank, found in 2015 that 74% of county jails banned in-person visits once they signed up with a video company.

Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman for the Prison Police Initiative, said the remote video calls are beneficial but should never be a substitute for an in-person visit. Being in jail can be isolating and can send people into a panic, she said.

“The whole experience can be heart-wrenching and hopeless,” she said. “And, frequently, all people have to comfort them during this time is contact with their loved ones. So when you take that away, it’s going to have some really detrimental effects on the individuals who are impacted.”

And it’s more than prisoner advocate groups who are concerned.

State Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who leads the criminal justice appropriations subcommittee, supports video calls as a way for people to stay connected who may not live close to the jail. But he became troubled when he learned that many contracts include the requirement that county jails eliminate in-person visitation in favor of the service provider’s video equipment.

“We know that one of the most important, positive factors we can add in is to have community and a good support structure,” he said. “You just don’t have that when you don’t have any physical connection. It takes the humanity out of it.”

Some deals go even further. Weber County, for instance, signed a contract in 2017 in which the communications company, Securus, paid for the equipment to be brought into the facility. But there were strings attached: The county agreed to make the video terminals available seven days a week, for at least 80 hours. And it agreed to encourage one remote video visit per inmate per month, at a cost of $5 for a 20-minute call. If the jail didn’t bring the anticipated income, the contract allows Securus to bill the county for the cost of the equipment.

States such as Massachusetts, California and Illinois have taken legislative action to require its jails and prisons to provide in-person visits. But Hutchings says he doesn’t anticipate bringing a legislative fix in Utah. He wants to wait, he said, for more evidence and research that explores whether video-only visitation has a negative impact on inmates.

This means that, at least for now, county sheriffs will continue to decide visitation policies. And video visitation has some big benefits for county jails. It reduces the need for security at visitation sites and eliminates the chance of someone passing contraband to an inmate.

“It’s been super successful,” said Millard County Lt. Ben McDonald, whose jail made the move to video a year ago. “It did what we wanted to do. It limited movement and increased safety and security.”

Davis County Chief Deputy Arnold Butcher acknowledges that there are downsides with video-only visitation. But he said having the technology to connect inmates remotely has been a benefit.

“Our goal is to return them better,” he said of the inmates. “More access to family and people in their lives is important. There’s pros and cons. It’s opening it up so they do have more contact that they otherwise would not. But eliminating that face-to-face [contact] is a drawback.”

There have been a few holdouts in Utah that haven’t switched to video visitation. Garfield County hasn’t made the move because it’s too expensive.

And Salt Lake County, Utah’s largest county jail, still favors in-person interactions because its building includes a separate entrance for visitors negating concerns about contraband. Salt Lake County officials are also concerned about the cost of adding the video equipment.

“We look at different technologies that are out there. We are trying to make the best fit for our prisoners,” Sgt. Kevin Hunter said. “We haven’t found something that is cost effective at this time.”

The cost to keep in touch

Alicia Smith would talk to her sister about three times a week through Davis County’s remote video visits, before she was sent to the state prison.

She believes the video chats helped them both. She was able to support her sister while she was incarcerated, but the chats also helped them jump-start tough conversations that needed to be had within their family.

Her sister, Brianne Altice, was a former high school teacher imprisoned for having sexual contact with several students. Those video visits allowed them to talk through issues, so when Altice was released, they could move forward as a family.

“It really has helped the healing process,” Smith said.

But those video calls are not cheap. Smith said she had to budget for the calls — at $7.99 each, she spent an extra $100 per month just to keep in touch.

The price can vary widely from county to county. That same 40-minute call that Smith made to her sister in Davis County at $7.99 would have cost $10.95 in Sanpete County and $25.98 in Grand County. All three use the same company, Securus, for the video service.

Those same cost disparities exist with traditional phone calls at county jails. For instance, a family in Davis County pays $2.40 for a 15-minute phone call, while someone who calls from jails in Sanpete or Grand counties is shelling out more than $7.

This means that people trying to keep in touch with inmates in rural Utah counties are often paying premium prices to do so. And many of those inmates in the jails with expensive video and phone call rates are there because the state prison is paying the county to keep them there.

Bertram, with the Prison Policy Initiative, said this is particularly concerning — that prisoners serving lengthy terms are being kept in county jails without in-person access to their families.

“The idea that somebody might be serving a sentence of years in a county jail, not being able to see any of their loved ones in person, face to face, is horrifying,” she said.

On a recent Thursday in Davis County, Deputy Jeff Baer is spending his evening monitoring those inmates who are visiting with their families.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deputy Jeff Baer monitors multiple video visitations at once at the Davis County Jail, looking for any prohibited behavior, at which point he would shut down the broadcast. Video visitation at county jails in Utah has become more commonplace. The Davis County jail, where people who come to visit their loved ones, up to twice a week on location, speak to them through a video monitor rather than a face-to-face or barrier visit. More than half of Utah's county jails now do video-only visitation, a practice that is concerning to advocates and upsetting to those who have family behind bars.

There are a dozen different video calls displayed on a large monitor. Some of them are seated behind him at kiosks talking to inmates. Others are paying to conduct the visits from their homes.

There’s an inmate dancing along with a woman in her living room. Another cradles the phone receiver to his ear as he claps with a toddler who is sitting on her mom’s lap. Then there’s the Cappellis, who are proudly holding up baby Nellie so their son can see her.

Baer says there are occasions when he has to cut off the video calls, like if someone starts using drugs at home or taking off clothes. But most evenings are like this one.

They’re just people, he says, trying to keep connected to their loved ones — just like any of us would want to do.