Life Has Moved to Zoom. Can Prison Visitation Do the Same?

Pennsylvania pilots a program to help incarcerated people connect with their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arms hold up a video tablet that shows a man in prison garb
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

On Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern, join Future Tense for There’s No Social Distancing in Prison, a Social Distancing Social with Josie Duffy Rice and Lawrence Bartley.

For Robert Pezzeca, who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania, the introduction of Zoom as a means of video visitation meant he got to see 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 me recently in a message.

For Heather Lavelle, also serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania, Zoom visitation has meant a temporary escape from prison lockdown—a short reprieve from the stresses inherent in weathering a pandemic in prison, where social distancing is difficult (and often impossible), information is sparse, and risk is high. When she visited with a friend from Florida, she said in a message, she loved being able to “interact in real time.”

“I saw his house and his dog, which I had never seen before. Much better than seeing a picture of his house or dog,” she wrote. “It was really special. It took me out of prison for a while, which meant a lot.”

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, prisons across the U.S. have suspended in-person visitation. This step, while necessary to limit the spread of the virus in an environment that amounts to a tinderbox for contagion, leaves incarcerated people even more distant from their friends and family members. Left in the widening gap between those on the inside and those who love them on the outside are fear, misinformation, and, often most painfully, silence.

In order to connect, incarcerated people and their family members have no option but to turn to phone calls, video calls, and electronic messaging—often made possible in prisons and jails via tablets and terminals from Global Tel Link and Securus, two companies that dominate the prison communication industry. But incarcerated people, their families, and advocates say that prices for these technologies are way out of line with what we pay on the outside, and quality leaves a lot to be desired. In a February 2019 report, the Prison Policy Initiative highlighted state by state the highest cost for a 15-minute call from a local jail, with staggering results: $21.97 in Wisconsin, $22.56 in Michigan, and $24.82 in Arkansas. In a survey late last year, the Marshall Project (disclosure: I used to work there) found that respondents spent an average of $63 per month video chatting with incarcerated loved ones. And in Pennsylvania, it costs $0.25 to send a 2,000-character email through a GTL messaging system. These are costs that add up when you consider that, according to a 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report, incarcerated people earn an average of between $0.14 and $1.41 per hour.

The high costs for these technologies are more devastating now, with people losing jobs both outside and within prisons. Advocacy groups including Color of Change, Worth Rises, and FAMM are demanding that prison and jail communication be made free “now and forever.”

Given all this, different prisons and jails—in conjunction with the private companies that provide their communication services—are looking into alternative ways to maintain connections. As Molly Minta reported for the Appeal, some have provided limited numbers of free or discounted phone calls, video calls, or emails. According to the UCLA School of Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, 17 state prison systems have offered some sort of compensatory remote access to video visitation, and 34 have offered compensatory access to phone calls.

Among the alternatives offered, Pennsylvania’s program is unique. It allows incarcerated people to have up to one 45-minute video call per week using Zoom, depending on scheduling availability. Priscilla McCarthy Barolo, a communications manager for Zoom, said Pennsylvania was the only example the company knew of in which a prison or jail was using the software for family visitation. (The technology is being used elsewhere for legal visitation and court proceedings.)

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections used Zoom video calling for end-of-life and funeral visits, and the department was working on making the technology available for virtual church services. To conduct a video visit with an incarcerated person outside of those contexts, visitors had to schedule an appointment, physically travel to the closest PADOC facility, and then chat with their loved one via a kiosk. While the video calls themselves were free of charge, having to commute to a facility limited access and posed other costs for potential visitors.

Enter the pandemic and its suspension of in-person visitation, and expanding the use of Zoom to video calls with friends and family members was a “natural transition,” according to Deb Sahd, special assistant to Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, in a written statement.

The Pennsylvania DOC began offering Zoom video visits on March 19. Visitors schedule their calls via email. At the time of the visit, the person on the outside connects to Zoom using a phone, tablet, or computer, and the person on the inside is brought to a station within their facility.

The new program has been met with enormous demand: Between March 19 and April 26, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections conducted 20,838 video visits via Zoom, according to the latest numbers released online. Such demand has led to a backlog in requests, which have come in at a much higher volume than those from the previous video visitation program—currently, the DOC is asking visitors to schedule visits “at least one month out” to give prison staff time to schedule and respond.

Scheduling delays aren’t the only hiccup with the new program. Lavelle hasn’t yet been able to visit with her 87-year-old father, she told me, because he and her stepmother don’t know how to download the app. “Nobody can go help them because everyone is sheltering in place! It frustrates them (causes anxiety) that there is a way to see me, but they can’t figure it out,” she wrote. For people on the inside, Lavelle said, it can be hard to explain to older loved ones how to use certain technology, because many have been incarcerated for long enough that they’re not familiar with the technology themselves. In addition, of Lavelle’s three scheduled visits, she said, two had connection problems. (In a written statement, the DOC’s Sahd said that some issues exist due to the volume of visits, “but large non-connectivity issues are not being reported.” The DOC will work to address any reported connectivity problems, Sahd said.)

Despite problems, Lavelle said, the Zoom visits provide a connection to outside world—something that gives her hope, particularly in the process of grieving her mother, who died on March 10.

“Not being able to see my family has added to my grief,” she wrote. “This helps.”

The Pennsylvania Prison Society, an advocacy and monitoring organization that dates back to 1787, has been helping with some of the technical and scheduling issues in the rollout of the Zoom program. Under normal circumstances, the society offers a transportation program, busing people around the state to visit incarcerated loved ones. With that on hold, it’s been helpful to offer an alternative to allow people to connect face to face with their loved ones, said Noelle Gambale, who’s been helping people troubleshoot Zoom visitation on behalf of the organization.

Different prison facilities’ varying capacities for video visitation are in part responsible for scheduling delays. In an in-person visitation room, you might be able to have 40 or more visits happening simultaneously, said Kirstin Cornnell, the social services director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Now, visits are limited by the number of video stations in the facility, not to mention staffing capacity to schedule visits and ensure incarcerated people can physically get to their calls, all while trying to maintain safe social distancing practices.

Thomas Greene, who is serving a life sentence, told me that in his facility, there are only three kiosks for more than 2,000 men. Greene said he’s had one “five-star” visit, but he’s also had three visits denied because of a lack of available time slots. “I have other Family who want to schedule a visit, but I have them waiting until I can get one with Mom and Dad first,” Greene told me in a message. “I really want to see them, and Mom can’t wait to show me all the changes in the house since I’ve been gone.”

One of the big questions with the Zoom visitation program, which has been positively received by users in Pennsylvania, is whether it’s a model that can be replicated in other prisons and jails, and whether it will continue to be offered after the pandemic is over. Video visitation is no substitute to in-person visitation, even though some corrections systems have used video calls to replace in-person meetings over the past few years. But the technology provides a good supplement for people who live far from their incarcerated loved ones, and a good potential alternative to the costly systems traditionally offered by companies like GTL and Securus.

“As an organization that advocates and encourages maintaining those family connections, we would undoubtably like to see this continued,” said Joshua Alvarez, prison monitoring director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

In a statement, Sahd said the DOC has shared its practices with other states and that the program “has been very successful” and “will be reviewed for continued utilization in the future.”

Pezzeca said he’s written to state legislators and prison administrators asking to make the Zoom visitation a permanent offering. For now, he is looking forward to another visit with his daughter, who lives in Ohio, and hopes to schedule a visit with an aunt and uncle in Italy.

“I’ve never seen my Italy family, this is my 1 chance,” Pezzeca wrote. “All prisons should do this.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.