What John Oliver Gets Wrong About Jail, and More Thoughts on Video Visitation

Last week, you might have watched the latest viral rant from John Oliver on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. It didn’t go as viral as his tirade against FIFA, or his entreaty to email the FCC about net neutrality, but it still popped up a number of places, because, well, Sesame Street and muppets. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you need to. (Full disclosure: possibly NSFW due to salty language.)


It’s a good piece, and it should make you infuriated—the state of mass incarceration in this country is atrocious. Privatizing—and profiting from—locking up people is really screwed up. But there’s one point Oliver misses. Right after showing a clip from Sesame Street, Oliver says, “At least Sesame Street is actually talking about prison. The rest of us are much happier completely ignoring it, perhaps because it’s so easy not to care about prisoners. They are by definition convicted criminals.”

But as my recent cover story on the new video-only visitation policy at Knox County’s three jails notes, there are are a lot of people behind bars who aren’t convicted criminals. Inmates in state and federal prisons have been convicted, but on average, 50 percent of people in local jails are still awaiting trial and thus “presumed innocent.” That’s a national average, of course—in Knox County it’s more like 70 percent. And conditions in local jails are often much worse—and more restrictive—than state or federal prisons, because municipal budgets are even more strapped than state budgets.

This leads me back to my story. When I was writing it, I had much more data than I could fit into print. Also, since it’s been published, there have been a few other related news items worth mentioning. So here are my reporting outtakes on “Orange Is the New Green,” in not much of a particular order.

A) One thing I partially got wrong: The county is under a federal court order to keep its jail population under 1,200. Thus, my very hypothetical calculations that if the jails were at capacity, the county could conceivably take in $730,966 annually from visitation fees is literally an impossible occurrence. In my story I did note this probably would never happen, but now I am noting that it cannot.

B) Whatever the Knox County Sheriff’s Office says, whatever other jails say, there should really be no doubt that video visitation replacing in-person visitation—through glass walls or not—is about both cost and control, whether or not a jail is getting kickbacks. Datapoint, the company that installed the very first video visitation system, back in 1995 in Florida, has always said so. Take this quote from a press release from 1999:

‘The primary use of this video communications technology today is to reduce the costs for visitation, interviews and interrogations across a large number of departments,’ stated Michael Black, vice president of sales for Datapoint Corporation.

Datapoint filed for bankruptcy in 2000 as the first internet bubble began to burst. However, the year before, it had spun off its video visitation business into a different company. That company, now called VUGate, is still in business. Here’s what its website says:

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Got that? It says, “VUGate systems were developed in conjunction with correctional officers to incorporate common industry-specific operational procedures and most importantly a command and control architecture.” And it’s the company’s website that has that all in boldface, not me!

Of course, Knox County’s kiosks aren’t made by VUGate, they’re made by Tech Friends. So here’s what their website has to say about the units:

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Seriously, it actually says that part of the point of video visitation is reduce visitors.

C) There’s another thing about those Tech Friends kiosks that I didn’t get to—they have filtration software to block anything inappropriate from showing up on screen. In theory, this sounds like a reasonable idea, preventing peep shows and all that. But in practice, as the company’s official demonstration video of the software shows, it really just makes the video visitation even more limiting.


And as the beginning of the video shows, the filtration system isn’t really about nudity—it’s about furthering that command and control architecture. “Improve Control Over: Behavior Clothing Messaging,” the video states, before showing the filter in use on a picture of a pin-up girl.

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So creeeeeepy, right?

As of April, KCSO said it wasn’t using the Eclipse software just yet. And since they won’t return my calls, I have no idea it it’s been turned on yet.

D) Oh yeah, the KCSO’s public affairs office stopped returning my calls or e-mails right before publication of the story for some reason. I tried to get statistics on the use of the video visitation system since regular visitation ended—no response.  I had been told the jails were averaging around 65 visitors a day, or 455 visitors a week, in March. No idea what that number is like now. Hopefully they’ll decide to start talking to me again, and I can find out.

E) Back when KCSO was still talking to me, I was given a brief tour of the main detention facility to see the visitation pods that are now no longer in use. A couple of officers and KCSO spokesperson Martha Dooley escorted another reporter, a defense attorney, and me around the jail, explaining how visitation had worked in the past. One of the officers mentioned how crazy the lobby would get on the weekend and how now that wouldn’t be a problem. (I heard this over and over from KCSO, although every lawyer  with whom I spoke said it wasn’t nearly as bad as they made it out to be.) Dooley chimed in. “It breaks my heart to see all the little children in the lobby,” she said. I asked if it wouldn’t break the children’s hearts to no longer be able to be in the same room as their parents. Neither Dooley nor the officers had an answer.

F) I talked to many more local defense attorneys than I had space to quote in my story, and I talked to a few others off the record or on background. Every single one stated opposition to the video-only visitation policy, using phrases like “inhumane,” “dehumanizing,” “extremely cruel,” “shameful,” “very upsetting,” and “incredibly disturbing.”

G) Finally, I’m not done reporting on this, either in Knox County or in Tennessee. And there’s a lot more to report. In mid-May, NPR aired the results of a year-long investigation into prison/jail fees and associated court costs, noting that many people land back in jail because they’re in debt to the system. (If you’ve watched Orange Is the New Black, you might remember that an episode in the first season also dealt with this.) In Tennessee, one can be required to pay for any  electronic monitoring device, a probation officer, a public defender, and the cost of staying in jail. Oh, and all these fees and costs have risen since 2010. In Knox County inmates are charged, daily, for room and board, as if they were staying in a cheap motel. Sometimes the jail fees are waived, but the court costs almost never are. I hope to look at those numbers, and many others too. (That is, if KCSO starts responding to my requests for data.)

Still, as grim as this all is, there are some signs changes could be on the horizon. The FCC held a workshop on July 9 to discuss fees for inmate calling services, and one panel specifically discussed video visitation. (Full disclosure: The Prison Policy Initiative submitted my story in a public comment on the FCC docket for the hearing, one of 870 filings to date.) The agency limited the cost of interstate phone calls last fall and is considering similar action to reduce charges for local and in-state calls. At the hearing, Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said:

Despite our cry for intrastate reform, the call has largely gone unanswered. I still hope that other states will move and do so soon but I feel that the FCC has both the duty, and the authority, to act under the statute, if the states do not, or cannot. While I hope it will not come to that if it does, I will strive to find a path where FCC reforms could act as a floor or default if states cannot or will not act.

The good news is that some states and municipalities have taken action. The city of San Francisco just amended its jail telecommunications contract to reduce fees, and legislation has been introduced in the California Assembly that would prevent local governments from getting any commissions in their contracts with phone companies providing service to jails—which presumably would cut down on the exorbitant costs and fees.

Meanwhile, Alabama has announced new rules to cap fees on telecommunication services in jails, including disclosure of any industry kickbacks coming from Western Union or similar companies. (That’s right—there’s often an extra fee charged to wire money to jail communications companies, which then gets divvied up between the two businesses.)

This means that Alabama—ALABAMA—has more progressive policies in place in its jails than Tennessee. Louisiana, which has the highest inmate population in the world, is considering similar measures. So there might be hope for Tennessee inmates and their friends and family after all, despite the Republican supermajority in the Legislature. Fingers crossed, anyway.

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