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Virtual Visiting: Skype Connects Work Release Residents to Family

April 29, 2020

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

Man waving and holding hand sanitizer at a computer desk.

Kyle Fowler, a resident at the Tri-Cities Work Release in Kennewick, uses Skype to video chat with his wife. (Winnie Chan, Community Corrections Supervisor)

KENNEWICK – Work release resident Kyle Fowler sat anxiously in front of a laptop one afternoon. Within moments, a smiling woman appeared on the screen and they began talking. They chatted about spiritual topics and upcoming medical appointments, regular day-to-day things married couples talk about.

“Real life things that matter in open, effective, communication,” the 35-year old said about the first Skype session he had with his wife from the Tri-Cities work release in Kennewick.

In light of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order (pdf) and other Department of Health and Center for Disease Control social distancing recommendations related to COVID-19, the Department of Corrections has temporarily suspended visitation at work releases and prisons statewide.

Some work releases are looking to technology to keep families connected through video conferencing applications like Skype.

In lieu of in-person visits, the Tri-Cities work release provides a computer with Skype for residents to use to talk with family members.

Across the state in Seattle, the Helen B. Ratcliff Work Release has installed six computers with video visitation capabilities. According to Ratcliff Work Release Community Corrections Officer Stacy Fitzgerald, the work release will use video conferencing for more than just visits with family. They can use the applications for residents to partake in meditation sessions and to take online GED and life skills courses from South Seattle Community College.

In addition, Ratcliff has installed a TV in its dining room that will be able to host interactive Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well as art and music programs.

“Having the video conferencing access is going to make an incredible difference in residents’ lives and the way we operate as a facility from now on,” Fitzgerald said.

The computers at Ratcliff work release were donated by the If Project. The If Project is a recidivism prevention and reduction program that is a collaboration of law enforcement, current and previously incarcerated adults and other community partners.

The computer at the Tri-Cities work release was a used computer donated by a resident’s family member, which the DOC inspected and refurbished.

“They were ecstatic,” said Winnie Chan, community corrections supervisor at the Tri-Cities Work release. “They’ve gone from having regular contact with their families to nothing. Being able to see their kids and hear their voices is exciting and it’s a piece of hope we can afford these residents.”

All computers are in common areas where correctional staff supervise residents at all times to make sure computer use is safe and appropriate.

The DOC recognizes that maintaining family connections while incarcerated can reduce the likelihood of recidivism. A 2011 study published on the National Institute of Corrections’ website found that visits reduced felony conviction recidivism by 13%.

Some residents recently shared some feedback about virtual visits:

“Being able to talk via Skype to my children and family members completely changes my mindset about my current incarceration. It allows me to see on a daily basis the reason for changing my past. It allows me to keep close connection with my children, understanding and hearing how much they love me and are rooting for good things in my life. It also lowers stress levels among residents, lessens tension and keeps a more pleasant learning environment.” --Michael Curtis, 38

“It means the world to me and my wife. We are able to discuss matters that are vital to our successful marriage…Skype is a glimpse of hope in a dark time in the world due to COVID-19. The sense of unity and strength with my family you provided—we will forever be grateful. This is a blessing.” --Kyle Fowler, 35
“Even though Skype is a video visit, it helps to bring us closer to our loved ones in such a drastic time. I feel like we are all working together to make sure we all get to use it (Skype). I feel so blessed. It has not only eased my mind, but my loved ones’ minds as well.” --Joline Gorsuch, 38
“The Skype implementation has been a savior. The mood in our facility, our temporary home, has been drastically changed, thanks to our community corrections officer for dedicating her time and using resources to ensure if we can’t have visits at home, one-on-one visits through Skype makes it possible.” --Derek Taylor, 38

If you are an individual or organization who wants to donate a computer for a work release, please contact the individual work release. If they determine your item is eligible to donate, they will work with you to fill out a donation approval request, receipt and arrange for item pickup.

For all the latest DOC news in response to COVID-19, please visit the agency’s COVID-19 information page. If you have general questions about the state’s overall COVID-19 response, please visit the Washington State Coronavirus Response (COVID-19) website.