January 21, 2021

Virtual Visits: a pandemic lifeline plagued by problems
Thousands of people locked down in Pennsylvania prisons and jails during the pandemic have gone nearly a year without a visit from loved ones.

Thousands of people locked down in Pennsylvania prisons and jails during the pandemic have gone nearly a year without a visit from loved ones. Virtual visits have been a critical lifeline keeping families together, but the video calling system used in state prisons is plagued with problems that make it unusable for many.

We’re shining a light on this critical issue this week, when mounting coronavirus deaths in prisons contribute to the fear and uncertainty of those who have loved ones incarcerated.

Our hearts go out to the families of the nine people in state and county custody who died with COVID-19 in the past week. To date, the virus has claimed the lives of 97 people in custody and 8 correctional workers in Pennsylvania.

Barriers and technical problems frustrate families trying to connect

Shortly after it prohibited in-person visits back in March, the Department of Corrections began offering free Zoom video calls to people in its custody.  These calls have been an invaluable source of connection for incarcerated people and their families during the pandemic, just as they have for those of us quarantining in our homes. But in September, the DOC moved from using Zoom to a new system using Polycom RealPresence technology.  Immediately, we started getting complaints of calls disconnecting and other issues like audio or video failure.  

Lakyra Stokes’ experience is typical. The Philadelphia resident’s husband is incarcerated in the state prison at Waymart.  In the spring, it was a great comfort for her and her three young children to be able to see his face again on Zoom. But since the prisons moved to the Polycom system, technical issues have been cutting their visits short. The connection constantly drops during the calls, Lakyra says, and it takes precious time to reconnect. Sometimes, she only gets 15 minutes of actual call time with her husband during a 45 minute session.

“Visits were so bad that it got to a point where we decided we weren’t going to try anymore for a while,” Lakyra says. Having their hopes for quality time together dashed so often is “kind of soul crushing.”

And that’s when they’re able to connect at all. Lakyra and her husband went two full months without a video call while his housing unit was under a Covid lockdown, depriving him of access to the technology. In addition, the prison frequently cancels their calls just minutes before the scheduled time without explaining why.

The Prison Society has heard from dozens of families with similar stories of calls dropping, abrupt cancellations, and scheduling difficulties, among other problems. In our most recent round of surveys of incarcerated people, 63 percent of people in custody who had a recent video visit reported either trouble accessing the service or technical issues during the call.

When the DOC transitioned to the Polycom system, it promised a more user-friendly and streamlined experience. But too often, the reality for families of people in custody has been the opposite.

We call on the department to remedy the technical issues plaguing virtual visits and remove the barriers many encounter when trying to access them.

Crawford County leads the way on vaccination

Last week we highlighted Montgomery County's use of weekly, rapid testing of all correctional staff, a needed precaution that we have been urging all prisons to adopt.  This week we have another county to praise. Crawford County Correctional Facility has given the first COVID-19 vaccines to correctional workers in Pennsylvania, giving shots to nearly its entire staff. Though the vaccines will not become widely available for people who live or work in prisons until the next phase of distribution, we are encouraged by Crawford County’s swift efforts to begin the work to extinguish outbreaks raging behind bars.

We renew our calls for all state and county officials to:

  • Administer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff as soon as they become available.
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.

Sky Blue Heart
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