- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont’s prison system is rolling out special email and video visitation services for inmates, which advocates and corrections officials see as a boon but are raising concerns in some states where they are already in place about the cost to prisoners and other issues.

Vermont inmates at a private prison in Michigan with which the state has a contract, as well as in-state prisons in Newport and St. Johnsbury, recently were allowed to begin using the new email system, said Mike Touchette, director of facility operations for the Corrections Department.

Inmates can go to a kiosk to use the system or can buy an electronic tablet that allows them to communicate with the system, which is run by JPay, a private company providing the prison email service.

JPay also offers a video service - at $9.95 for a 30-minute session. Inmates also can download songs and electronic books.

Touchette said kiosks have been installed in all seven of Vermont’s prisons; most are still awaiting completion of the wiring, he added.

At the St. Johnsbury prison, Superintendent Alan Cormier said, the electronic communications are especially helpful to inmates with families out of state. And he said the games, music and videos inmates can get through the system can cut down on boredom.

“From a safety and security standpoint, if they’re occupied and not bored, we have a safer facility,” Cormier said.

The system is different from email services offered to the general public outside the facilities in several respects, Touchette said. One is cost; senders pay 40 cents per email. The tablets are different from the standard iPad, as well - they are more robust and tamper-proof, he added.

The costs, which are higher in some of the states that have introduced video visitation, trouble some inmate advocates, who say they can burden often low-income families.

Defender General Matt Valerio, whose office includes a Prisoners’ Rights Office, said as currently designed, the system will not be used for communications between inmates and their lawyers, because it is monitored by Corrections Department personnel.

Touchette said the monitoring is to guard against illicit content. One sender of an email to an inmate attached a photo in which “she exposed her breasts to the inmate, so that was terminated,” he said.

Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, a group that advocates for prisoners’ rights, called the new email system a welcome development.

“I’m really pleased that it exists,” she said. “I’m getting emails from people that are really enlightening about what’s going on. … It’s quicker. Sending a letter from a jail can take a really long time. Here I’m able to get information about an immediate situation, like two men were just taken to the hospital as the result of a fight.”

The new tools are not without their critics, who cite the costs, the fact that some jails are pushing to eliminate in-person visits in favor of video conferencing, and technical difficulties.

The video systems often are “very glitchy,” said Bernadette Rabuy of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, an inmates’ rights group. “It’s pretty obvious when you try them that they’re far worse than the experience of a through-the-glass visit,” she said.

Wizowaty has been a critic of Vermont’s use of private prison contractors, and she said that skepticism extends to the private companies providing the new electronic services.

“I think it’s a new way for corporations to make money,” Wizowaty said. “I don’t think there’s any altruism in it.” But, “not everything that makes money is bad. This does turn out to have a benefit to inmates and their families, because it does enhance communication, and that’s a good thing.”

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