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Romano: For-profit prison video plan has a captive audience

In some ways, this is a story of money and politics. Maybe of timing and coincidence.

But if you cut through all of the details and the angst, it's really a story of mistrust.

And perhaps that's inevitable when the conversation revolves around prisons and their inmates, but Florida never seems to pass up the opportunity to make a bad situation even worse.

And so the latest problem is borne of the oldest complaint:

Lack of funding.

Florida is so keen on locking people up, and ignoring criminal justice reform, that we spend about $2.4 billion annually on the prison system. That means we're constantly cutting corners, which translates into unnecessarily foolish choices between safety and proven rehabilitation models.

In this case, that means reducing in-person visitation time at state prisons.

Never mind that studies have shown that inmates who have a bona fide connection to the outside world are less likely to reoffend. And never mind that the anticipation of a family visit encourages prisoners to be better behaved, leading to safer conditions for guards and everyone else.

The Department of Corrections acknowledges all of that, and yet is still contemplating cutting prison visitation in half because it doesn't have enough staffers to handle weekend visits safely and efficiently.

"We value in-person visitation, we absolutely do. But given our current (financial) situation, this is our best option for safety reasons," said DOC spokeswoman Michelle Glady. "I know there's a lot of emotion and fear among family members out there, but we're not eliminating in-person visitation."

Unfortunately, there are legitimate reasons for the fear.

At the same time the state is pondering a 50 percent reduction of in-person visit opportunities, a private contractor is rolling out a new program that will allow video calls between families and inmates.

For a fee, naturally.

The timing may look suspicious, but Glady says the video program has nothing to do with the reduction of in-person visiting days. The state has been working with South Florida contractor JPay for more than two years, and the video calls are meant to supplement — not replace — in-person visits.

The problem is that video calls actually have replaced in-person visitation in a lot of jails (but not many prisons) around the country. There have also been issues of these outside contractors gouging inmates and their families with various fees for calls, money transfers, downloads and other services.

"They're reducing our days so they can make money on video visitation. Money is what motivates these people," said Jewie Tryon, whose husband is serving 25 years to life, and who has started a petition at change.org to stop the reduction of visiting days. "When you take away the only honest-to-God reason for rehabilitation these guys have, you're going to have trouble. I promise you that."

Representatives at JPay, which has prison contracts in more than 30 states, did not respond to an interview request.

"We know family visits reduce recidivism, and they create a safer prison environment. I can't think of a good reason for wanting to eliminate visiting days," said Lucius Couloute, an analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. "The possibility of revenue is probably the leading factor."

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