Myra Gaskins sits in one of the virtual visitation rooms at Connection Training Services in North Philadelphia. Peak Johnson/Billy Penn.

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Updated at 2 pm on Thursday, June 8

Myra Gaskins’ life changed in 1989. Her son, LaFaye Gaskins, had been arrested for murder. Myra still insists her son is innocent, but a jury found him guilty in May 1990 of killing Albert Dodson, a drug dealer. LaFaye is currently serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy in Schuylkill County.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a nonprofit corporation housed at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, is looking into her son’s case, Myra said, with the goal of getting him a new trial.

The only way Myra and LaFaye have been able to visit with each other over the last five years is through the Virtual Visitation Program, which allows inmates to communicate with their loved ones through a television, camera and internet hook up — similar to a Skype session.

These visits may soon be interrupted as the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ends the contract with the company that provides these services.

Myra and other families with incarcerated loved ones have been visiting Connection Training Services in North Philadelphia, a multi-funded agency that offers a variety of adult programs dealing with education, mentoring and reentry initiatives. The facility receives about 14 visits a day on average just for virtual visitation, according to Douglas Kissel, CTS’s VP of Development.

This apartment-styled room, complete with a camera and television, is used by Myra and other families for their virtual visits with loved ones. Peak Johnson/Billy Penn.

“I just had an interview with my son and he’s been in jail for quite a while,” said Myra, who lives in Overbrook. “If I didn’t come here, I would have to ride the bus. I would have to get up at four in the morning to get to 30th Street.”

Myra lives by herself and the early morning trek in the dark is not ideal. She has to walk two blocks in order to catch the Market-Frankford Line to get to 30th Street Station, then catch a bus to the prison.

Before using virtual visitation at CTS, Myra used transportation provided by the Pennsylvania Prison Society. According to its website, the Pennsylvania Prison Society offers transportation to and from prisons, with the exception of State Correctional Institutions (SCI) Camp Hill, Chester and Graterford. The price ranges from $35 to $50.

Myra finds the virtual visits at CTS more convenient and affordable. At just $20 she’s able to talk to Gaskins for 55 minutes once a month.

CTS is the only facility in Philadelphia where virtual visitation is offered. The Pennsylvania Prison Society used to offer the program at its facility when it first started back in May of 2001 via a grant. There are two other sites in Pennsylvania, one in Pittsburgh and the other in Erie.

“I’m closer to [LaFaye] right here than I would be in the prison,” Myra said. “I’m not surrounded by a bunch of other people and I don’t have to worry about them listening to our conversation and I get a chance to see him smile. How many people can smile when they’re in the prison? And I enjoy the visit, I really do.”

While the conversations are private, the video equipment has the ability to record for security reasons, according to Cheryl Scott, chief of treatment at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

However, changes are coming to the Virtual Visitation Program once the DOC ends their contract with Scotlandyard Security Services, the company that runs the program at CTS, sometime this month. (Update: Since publication, the state Department of Corrections negotiated a six-month extension [from July to December] with Scotlandyard to ensure that there is no disruption in inmate-family communication.)

Though the Virtual Visitation Program is state-funded, community centers like CTS are controlled by Scotlandyard Security, a Philadelphia-based security service that won the bid after the Prison Society’s contract with the Department of Corrections ended.

According to Kissel, the Virtual Visitation Program started at CTS in March of 2012, just a year after Scotlandyard proposed a six-month pilot program to the DOC.

Kissel said that CTS is just about ready to notify visitors about the upcoming change.

By ending the contract with Scotlandyard, the DOC is trying to be more fiscally responsible, Scott said. She says managing these services on their own will be cheaper and it will allow them to make the service free for visiting families.

“We are going to end the contract with Scotlandyard and we are requesting another contractor to actually schedule software service for us,” Scott said. “So exactly what we will be doing, instead of having the community centers, we will open up virtual visitation at every institution.”

Myra was surprised when learning that the contract would end and that a new system would be in place. Instead of calling into the community centers to schedule an appointment, a visitor would have to do so online and through the new software.

That could be a problem for Myra: “I don’t have a computer,” she said. “That would be inconvenient.”

Scott is hoping to have the new scheduling software in place soon after the contract ends, so that approved visitors can begin logging on. Information about the changes will be put up on the DOC website.

Currently, those who have family incarcerated can only virtually visit 10 prisons, so they are limited to who they can see. New software would allow virtual visitation at all 26 of Pennsylvania’s prisons.

Right now, a visitor from Philadelphia who wants to virtually visit an inmate in SCI Albion could go to either SCI Graterford or SCI Chester.  Albion will make sure the inmate is sitting in front of the virtual visitation screen or equipment, while Graterford or Chester, will make sure that visitor is sitting in front of their virtual visitation equipment.

So far, five contractors have bid to handle the scheduling software needed for the program to run at the additional prisons, though Scott said she can’t say who they are. The deal requires the scheduling software to be utilized at every prison.

Kissel added that the overall visits to CTS comes to 300 a month and it would be more if visitors were able able to virtually visit with other prisons from the site.

“We think that this will end up costing [the state] more money than the centers they have,” Kissel said, “and be less effective for the purpose of virtual visitation and having people travel miles and miles to get to prisons.”

Scott countered that unlike Scotlandyard, which charges the $20 fee, the department will not charge any visiting families.

“It’s very similar to what Scotlandyard is doing, but we’re eliminating the community sites,” Scott said. “One of the benefits to that is that every institution will have it, so we’re not limiting it, because that’s been hard for an inmate who wants to virtually visit, but if they’re not at one of those 10 institutions, they can’t.”

A 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections explored the relationship between prison visitations and recidivism. The study found that visitation lowered the risk of recidivism and concluded that prison visitation can better the transition for those who are returning from prison and entering back into the community.

“These prisons are often located in rural areas, it’s not easy to just walk out your door and take a bus or a cab to get there,” Kissel said. “So this is a program that we don’t think will work well and will only discourage the use of Virtual Visitation rather than encouraging recidivism.”

Kissel is not sure of an appeal process, but families affected can contact the Department of Corrections, or try writing to John Wetzel, PA’s secretary of corrections, to let their feelings be known.

Myra added that the Virtual Visitation Program gives inmates like LaFaye a chance to continue having a relationship with loved ones and not only keeps them from getting into trouble, but gives them something to look forward to.

If the contract does end after June and the new software is implemented, then Myra said she will have no other choice but to rely on public transportation and the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Though her visits, she said, may be less.

“We see them once a month, it might be right down to once a year, or twice a year, or not at all,” Myra said.