September 5, 2018 3:47 pm

Federal inmates are getting video visits, but advocates have concerns

Video visitation started as a pilot project in Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick in 2016.

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Federal inmates across the country will soon be able to connect with family and friends via video visitation.

Corrections Canada is in the process of expanding a two-year-old pilot program to all facilities and has been notifying inmates throughout the summer that they can apply for virtual visits.

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While that’s welcome news for some serving sentences on opposite ends of the country from their family and friends, advocates are more hesitant to cheer. They worry the move brings Corrections Canada (CSC) one step closer to making all visits digital.

“It’s very good, as long as it doesn’t affect the number of contact visits that the person is allowed to have,” said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society.

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The pilot started two years ago at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick, expanded to CSC’s 11 clustered institutions — those separately housing multi-security level offenders — and, finally, to two women-only institutions earlier this year. Now, inmates at CSC’s other 29 institutions are being brought online.

At the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, inmates were informed in August. One man, who is serving an indefinite sentence at the institution but did not want to be identified by name for safety reasons, said he’s hopeful it’ll increase the number of visitors.

“It’s nice to know it’s there if you need it,” he said.

“We’ve got guys from all over the country here and not everybody gets visits, so it’s good for that.”

Although the visits will be via a web-based platform, the process is still similar to the one for in-person visitors. People will still need to fill out the appropriate application forms and be approved, said Rob Campney, the deputy director of preventative security and intelligence at CSC’s national headquarters.

While every inmate can apply, he said, priority will go to those whose visits are hampered by distance. That’s partly because the service will be limited to regular visiting hours and, at least for now, there’s just one terminal per institution.

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“It’s really important for our offenders to have access to their friends and family in the community,” Campney said. “In some cases, primarily based on distance, location, or the visitor’s inability to travel to the institution, it’s not always possible for the inmate and his or her family to connect face to face.”

Once approved, inmates will get roughly 50 minutes of monitored screen-to-screen communication. They will have a monitor, camera and headphones, but no keyboard, mouse, or direct access to the computer’s hard drive.

Applications should take around six or seven weeks to process, Campney said. Because the visits are run using existing staff and existing technology, it’s “very, very cost neutral.”

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“It really supports CSC’s views that positive contact with family and friends is really important to the successful reintegration of offenders,” he said.

In theory, this is good news, said Anne Cattral, federal lead for the Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS), a support and advocacy group for those with loved ones behind bars.

“Like many things that CSC starts, it’s good in theory,” she said, “but CSC is such a huge conglomeration of different institutions, so many of their policies are not applied as it is envisioned in headquarters.”

Cattral would like to see more information on the program: how the CSC will ensure access, how it will prioritize contact and safeguard virtual visits, even if there are technical issues.

“She’s right to worry,” Latimer said. “We’re all right to worry because there are so many bureaucratic advantages to having visits over the Internet rather than contact.”

There is some reassurance in the mandate letter sent to CSC’s newly-appointed commissioner, Anne Kelly, she said. That letter, from the Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale, was published Sept. 5 — the first time Latimer can recall such a letter being released publicly.

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That alone is a good sign, she said, because “it provides an opportunity for those of us on the outside to be vigilant and try to hold CSC to account.”

In the letter, Goodale highlights the role family and community connection plays in ensuring offenders are able to smoothly transition back into society after their sentence is over.

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“I therefore encourage you to promote the development of these relationships by safely minimizing barriers to visits and communication, and exploring options for supervised use of e-mail,” the letter reads.

“By providing ways of maintaining contact with the outside world, offenders’ friends and family can, in a sense, also be partners in effective preparation for release.”

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