Jailhouses rocked: US$7 per call remote prison ‘visit’ app in China sparks row
Li also questioned the overall legitimacy and financial transparency of the service which is provided to the prisons via a third-party company.
“Several family members interviewed said that even if it cost 500 yuan for each conversation, they would be willing to pay.
Prison authorities say traditional face-to-face visits are still available and that the video call service will save the travel costs of inmates’ relatives. Photo: Getty Images
“So, may I ask if a license has been issued to allow for charging? Do they issue invoices? Are they paying taxes? Is financial transparency maintained within the prison?” he wrote in the post.
The ex-lawyer tagged the official Weibo accounts of the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in his post.
Zhengguan News reported that the application is available for use in a total of 14 prisons in the province.
The development of the application was carried out by an outside company and was first deployed in Hebei’s prison system in November 2020, according to the company’s official website.
In response to Li, a member of staff from Baoding Prison told Zhengguan News on August 8 that in-person visits at the prison are free of charge, adding that the remote video visit service is provided by a third party which collects the fees.
“Making money is normal, as you are using their equipment and network, which also saves you time and travel expenses,” the member of staff said.
“Whether the visits are by video or in-person, the inmate has to apply for them. In the case of video visits, only the inmate can initiate the request, and the interaction must take place on designated days,” he added.
Following news coverage of the initiative, Li reposted on Weibo on August 9, which said: “Of all the prison directors in the country, you might be the most talkative! Not only are you unaware that video visits in other provinces are free of charge, you are also unaware that charging on the e-government platform is prohibited.”
The story has also sparked a robust online debate.
A supporter of the scheme said “freedom of choice” was the key and argued that convicted criminals should not enjoy free services.
“For those who don’t want to spend money, they can have face-to-face visits. Why should criminals enjoy free services?”
However, others countered, with one person saying: “It’s ridiculous. There are plenty of free video calling apps available, why use a paid one?”
Another speculated: “It may not be coerced, and theoretically, they have options. But in practice, prison authorities could simply deny the approval of face-to-face visits.”
A third person voiced concern about financial connections between a prison authority and a third-party company: “I fail to understand. Do the prison authorities benefit financially here? Is this legal?”
Video-call visits are not new in China, in one case a prison even concealed the location of inmates who had not told their families they were in jail by installing fake backdrops. Photo: Getty Images
Another online observer quipped: “Hebei prisons, you certainly understand the market economy!”
The introduction of remote visit services in mainland prisons has produced some intriguing anecdotes.
In May 2022, a prison in Quanzhou, in the southeastern province of Fujian even went as far as concealing the location of inmates who had not told their families they were in jail.
The prison arranged backdrops of cityscapes and inmates were allowed to wear everyday clothing during the calls.