Michigan Begins Video Visits During Coronavirus Pandemic
‘‘Contact with friends and family is so important to the prison population, that’s why we worked hard to explore new technologies that could allow them to connect with their loved ones during this time,’’ said DOC Director Heidi Washington.
Video visitors must be on a prisoner’s Approved Visitor List, which may include immediate family members and up to 10 non-family members. Each visit lasts 20 minutes and costs $3.20, the same as a regular phone call. The service is provided by prison phone vendor Global Tel*Link (GTL). A $318 million behemoth in the $1 billion prison phone service market, GTL has recently been the subject of two federal class-action lawsuits over its pricing and account practices. (See PLN, Feb. 2020, p.38.)
In Michigan, GTL has reduced the fees prisoners pay to access the Internet or mobile phone networks by $1. In addition, the company offered every prisoner a free 10-minute phone each week between January 24 and February 28, 2021.
Michigan’s video visitation program does not lift the prohibition on volunteers and other groups who routinely entered DOC facilities before March 13, 2020, when the current ban was put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. About 60 percent of the agency’s prisoner tests for the virus have come back positive.
As of December 22, 2020, the disease had claimed the lives of 107 DOC prisoners and four staff members. By then, nearly 7,000 prisoners had been paroled since the pandemic began in order to reduce crowding and provide space for social distancing to combat the virus’ spread. That has brought DOC’s prisoner population to 33,758— the lowest in three decades.
The video-visit pilot program began on October 9, 2020, with scheduling for visits at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan. The first video visits there occurred on October 13, 2020. Three other prisons also were included in the pilot:
• G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility (CF), where scheduling began October 13;
• Duane L. Waters Health Center, where scheduling began October 16, 2020; and
• Chippewa CF, where scheduling began October 26, 2020.
DOC said it intended to extend the pilot to Ionia CF, Richard A. Handlon CF, Women’s Huron Valley CF and the C-Unit of the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center.
‘‘This is one step we are taking to safely restore contact between prisoners and their families, while protecting the health and well-being of everyone at our facilities,” Washington said, adding that video visitation “will not replace contact visiting in the future,” but calling it “a safe option we can proceed with during the pandemic.’’
DOC spokesman Chris Gautz added that prisoners and their families could be in for a long wait before in-person visitation can be safely restarted. As positive cases surged in late 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an emergency order on November 15 that limits gatherings and closed entertainment venues, recreational facilities and gyms. Restaurants were also closed to indoor dining, and in-person classes were canceled at schools, colleges and universities.
The restrictions were renewed on December 7, 2020, and partially relaxed on December 18, 2020, and January 13, 2021.