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Technology Helps Inmates Maintain Family Ties

April 25, 2016

By Andrew Garber

DOC Communications

an inmate sits in front of the new video phone - JPay internet kiosk a chart showing email use totals per year 2010 through 2015

(Tim Kelly , DOC Communications)

SHELTON - Darrick has a hard time imagining what life would be like if the Washington Corrections Center, (WCC) didn’t have Internet kiosks that let him connect to the outside world.

“I use it to video visit, for video messages, emails, I download music, I download books, I get pictures – I use it to its full capacity,” said Darrick, 34, an inmate at the prison. “It’s helped me to be able to have that constant communication to the outside, and to know that you are still being thought about every day.”

He clearly isn’t alone. Since JPay kiosks were first introduced to the Washington State Department of Corrections, (DOC) in 2010, email use has skyrocketed from roughly 276,000 messages sent and received the first year, to more than 2.5 million in 2015. The department uses software filters to screen email.

It wasn’t always so easy for people in prison to reach out to friends and family. Before 2010, communication was limited to U.S. mail and in-person visits.

The kiosks have significantly improved the ability of people who are incarcerated to keep in touch with their friends and family, said Devon Schrum, an assistant DOC secretary in charge of the reentry division.

“We’ve seen them reaching out to people, specifically to their kids, who might hesitate to sit down and write a letter to a parent who is in prison, but they will email much easier,” Schrum said. “We actually saw an increase in parent-child communication.”

Schrum noted that in-person visits did not decline after the introduction of email and other digital services. “It’s just made them a little richer because they’ll have had regular, ongoing conversations,” she said. “Now, when they have that in-person visit, it’s a continued conversation rather than starting from scratch all over again.”

After starting with email, the Washington DOC slowly added other options including video visitation.

“We’ve always known that family support is important and you have people who go very long periods of time where they don’t have a visit for whatever reason,” Schrum said. “The video visits allow people who are incarcerated to have that ongoing communication.”

Seeing their friends and family can help boost their morale and relieve anxiety, she said.

Video visits are expected to play a growing role in that regard. A 2014 survey of inmates in Washington state prisons, as reported in a 2016 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, found that a third of inmates reported their family did not have access to transportation to get to a prison and many had families who had to drive several hours for in-person visits at prisons.

Schrum said the video technology allows incarcerated individuals to connect with people just about anywhere. The very first video visit from an inmate in a Washington prison, was with a man sitting in a pickup truck who used his cell phone to create a hotspot and then used a tablet for the video visit.

He recalled there were some technical issues during the first video session with his two-year-old daughter, including some distortion in the picture, “but as soon as she saw me, she said ‘Dad, I love you,’ ” Darrick said.

The picture froze right after she said that, ending the visit, “but that carried me until the next time I was able to talk to her,” he said. “It’s hard for me to put in words.”

The department is continuing to explore new ways to incorporate technology into the lives of inmates. For example, DOC recently started a pilot program at several prisons allowing certain inmates taking college courses the use of full-size tablets.

The department also allows inmates to purchase small computer tablets, about the size of a smart phone, which they can use to listen to music and also compose emails that can be sent when connected to a kiosk.

Use of the equipment has helped relieve a persistent problem, where inmates who spent years in prison were essentially frozen in time and suffered from technological culture shock when they were released.

“You used to have to wait until you were released from prison to look at new technology,” Schrum said. “Folks jumped on this right away. There was a huge appetite.”