Can Video Visitation Reduce Recidivism? The experience of Minnesota, United States

Technology Implementation Case

Minnesota, USA

Context
Existing research suggests prison visitation is an underutilized resource that yields beneficial outcomes for those in prison. Indeed, visits improve mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and reduce misbehavior while incarcerated. Many studies indicate that recidivism is lower among incarcerated individuals who receive visits while in prison, decreasing reoffending by an estimated 26 percent. 
 

Visitation may improve reentry outcomes because visitors can help navigate the challenges that people released from prison face upon returning to the community.

Moreover, because identity transformation is important for desistance, visitation may facilitate this process by strengthening relationships with prosocial peers who model conventional, non-criminal behavior and attitudes.  

 

Problem
Despite the known benefits of visitation, research also shows that many incarcerated people do not receive visits while in prison. Studies reveal the unvisited rate ranges from a low of 39% to a high of 74%. The literature identifies several barriers to visitation. 
 
Policies regarding visitation may be restrictive, reducing one’s ability to actually visit and making visitors feel humiliated and degraded. The setting of the visitation area is often an inhospitable and stressful environment, discouraging friends and family members from visiting frequently.
 
Because most prisons are located in rural areas far from the urban areas where offenders lived, family members and friends often have to travel a great distance, making visits difficult and therefore rare. 
 

Quantitative studies confirm that distance between the facility and the likely location of visitors reduces the frequency of visitation. Relatedly, there is often a financial burden associated with visitation, as visitors frequently incur costs due to travel requirements, including transportation and, in some cases, lodging. 

 

Solution
To increase prison visitation, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (MnDOC) began offering remote video visitation—in which visitors are able to schedule and hold 30-minute calls with prisoners from a remote location—in November 2015. 
 
Like in-person visitation, video visitation may allow incarcerated individuals to maintain social ties in the community while avoiding many of the barriers discussed above.
 
Video visitation is also believed to improve operations within facilities because it reduces time and costs associated with processing visitors, monitoring visits, and moving incarcerated people from place to place. It also prevents the introduction of contraband into the facility, and increases staff and inmate safety.  
 
Also like in-person visitors, video visitors must be on the incarcerated individual’s visiting list. To be placed on a visiting list, individuals must submit an application and undergo a background check.
 
Visitors may participate in a video visit from any location that has a computer with a camera and microphone and a high-speed internet connection. Incarcerated individuals participate in the visit at a kiosk located in their living unit, and they must have an account with the vendor in order to receive visits.  
 

Video visits must be scheduled in advance, and the kiosk schedule and availability vary by facility and living unit. The cost of each video visit, which can last up to 30 minutes, is $9.95.

According to MnDOC policy, there is a maximum number of in-person visiting hours allowed per month, which varies by security level and ranges from 16 to 36 hours per month. But MnDOC policy does not restrict the number of video visits a person in prison can receive, and video visits do not count toward the maximum in-person visiting hours per month. 

 

Results
Despite the potential benefits of video visitation, prior research has not examined whether it has an impact on recidivism. We filled this gap in the literature by testing whether persons who received video visits were less likely to recidivate than those who did not, while accounting for traditional, in-person visits. 
 
Examining people released from Minnesota prisons between 2016 and 2018, we compared recidivism outcomes among 885 who had at least one video visit with a matched comparison group of 885 who did not receive any video visits. In doing so, we tested the assumption that video visits provide similar benefits as in-person visits while avoiding some of the barriers that reduce visitation. 
 
The results from our statistical analyses showed that receiving at least one video visit significantly reduced two measures of recidivism (general and felony reconviction). In particular, video visits decreased general reconvictions by 22 percent and felony reconvictions by 21 percent. Video visits did not have a significant effect on either violent reconvictions or technical violation revocations. We also found that as the number of video visits increased, so did the size of the reduction in recidivism, at least for general and felony reconvictions. For every additional video visit, the hazard of recidivism decreased by 3.1 percent for general reconviction and 3.6 percent for felony reconviction.
  

To further isolate the impact of video visits on recidivism, we also conducted analyses on the 364 people in our sample of 1,770 who did not receive an in-person visit while in prison. Of the 364, 184 received a video visit while the remaining 180 did not. Due in part to the smaller sample size, only one result was statistically significant. Of those without an in-person visit, receiving a video visit significantly reduced general reconviction by 31 percent.

 

Conclusion
When the MnDOC introduced video visitation in late 2015, one of the goals of this initiative was to expand the accessibility of visitation.
 
After all, research has not only shown that visitation is associated with less recidivism (Mitchell et al., 2016), but also that visitation is less likely to happen when potential visitors have to travel greater physical distances (Clark & Duwe, 2017). Therefore, it was believed that video visitation could be a key resource, especially for unvisited people who were separated by longer distances from their potential visitors.
 
As the findings clearly showed, however, video visitation was not used much by the Minnesota prison population. And, when it was used, it was mostly by those who were already receiving in-person visits. Only 184 incarcerated individuals (less than one percent of all releases from 2016-2018) received a video visit without an in-person visit.        
 
Why was video visitation used so sparingly? Conducting qualitative research with prisoners and visitors, which was beyond the scope of this study, would help determine why video visitation was underutilized. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence from MnDOC staff suggests a number of problems might have been responsible for its infrequent use. 
 
First, technological difficulties were relatively commonplace, resulting in what may have been a poor user experience. Second, the vendor’s software, which was not compatible with most smartphones and tablets, essentially required visitors to use laptop computers, which may have been a barrier for some potential visitors. Third, even though a video visit would generally be less costly than an in-person visit for many, the cost (about $10 for a 30-minute visit) may still be too much to bear for some potential visitors.
 
Just as prior research has shown that barriers to in-person visitation tend to be felt more acutely when potential visitors live in areas affected by concentrated disadvantage, the same may be true for video visitation.    
  

The findings provide additional evidence that social support, even if it is delivered virtually, can help people make a successful transition from prison to the community. In a similar vein, the results may bode well for the use of technologies, such as tablets, to deliver virtual programming to incarcerated populations. Research has shown that many people in prison do not participate in programming while they are confined, and the shortage of programming is often tied to a lack of resources, staff, and physical space. Because the staff and physical space requirements for tablets are relatively minimal by comparison, this mode of program delivery may be worth considering by correctional systems that struggle to provide enough programming to those in their custody. 

Dr. Grant Duwe is the Director of Research and Evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, where he evaluates correctional programs, develops assessment instruments, and forecasts the state’s prison population.  Dr. Duwe is the author of two books, and he has published more than 80 articles in peer-reviewed academic journals on a wide variety of topics in corrections.

Dr. Susan McNeeley is a senior research analyst for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Her work focuses on examining violence in prisons, identifying aspects of successful reentry, and evaluating correctional programming. Susan holds a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, USA. 

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