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VA Bill Would Require Inmate Video Calls At 'Lowest Available Rates'

When Chuck Meire and Shawn Weneta gained seats on the board of directors at Assisting Families of Inmates (AFOI), the men were galvanized by the Virginia nonprofit’s mission. Shortly after they joined in 2021, the unlikely duo believed that their organization wasn’t living up to its namesake. Their problem: the cost of the Zoom-like video calls — run by AFOI and its partner ViaPath Technologies. At first, the mobile device or at-home video calls cost 40 cents a minute. Then AFOI and ViaPath cut it to 20 cents a minute. Though Meire’s research found that rate was among the least expensive in the country, he and Weneta believed that their nonprofit shouldn’t be collecting any money from incarcerated people or their families for the calls. After two years of lobbying for a bill they helped craft aimed at the video call prices, it awaits Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s signature. The bill would require video calls set at the “lowest available rates,” the Washington Post reports.

“AFOI has fallen into the same profit-seeking trap that the prison communications industry thrives on. This money is coming from disproportionately Black, Brown and poor communities,” said Meire, now working at the civil rights nonprofit JULIAN. “Every dollar AFOI takes for video calls means families have to choose between seeing their loved one and paying bills.” Fran Bolin, AFOI’s executive director, said those criticisms are unfair, noting that the nonprofit also covers the cost of the video calls for families that can’t afford them. Bolin said the nonprofit would like families to pay nothing for the video call but she said that AFOI and ViaPath need to continue charging because some of that revenue, along with a $3 million coronavirus-related federal grant awarded to the state’s corrections department, helps pay for the installation of more video visitation stations within the prisons. Right now, inmates face long waits to use the video call areas because there are only so many. “We continue to put out family surveys, and one of the most recent ones directly addressed the cost — and the cost to families, per their own feedback, is not the issue,” Bolin said. “What they’re concerned about is the availability of [video] visits, the quality of those visits and successful technologies.”


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