RICHMOND, Va. (WFXR) — Even though in-person visitation was suspended on March 12, 2020 because of the pandemic, officials say inmates housed in Virginia’s state prisons and institutions stayed connected with friends and family through video visitation.

From March 2019 through March 2020, the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) says 3,257 video visits were made by inmates. However, from March 2020 through March 2021, inmates conducted 144,699 video visits.

Virginia DOC’s partnerships with Global Tel Link (GTL) and Assisting Families of Inmates (AFOI) — a non-profit organization focused on helping families stay connected to incarcerated loved ones — is what makes these video visits possible. However, Virginia DOC staff members are the ones who coordinate the video calls for inmates.

“The decision to suspend in-person visitation was a difficult but necessary one given the serious nature of the COVID-19 threat to the inmates and staff,” said Virginia DOC Director Harold Clarke. “We strongly believe that family support plays a vital role in an inmate’s success. The collaboration with GTL and AFOI to provide video visitation has been a major success, playing an important role in helping inmates endure this pandemic.”

The Virginia DOC says family and friends can either visit one of six visitor centers located throughout the state or conduct a video visit from home using the enhanced video visitation service, which allows visitors to connect from home using a desktop computer, laptop, or Android smartphone/tablet.

According to officials, visitors pay 40 cents per minute for 20 or 50 minute video visits — or $8 for 20 minutes and $20 for 50 minutes. However, those fees go directly toward the cost of operating the program at AFOI and partnering visitor centers.

“Throughout the pandemic, technology has been critical for all of us to stay connected with work, family and friends,” said AFOI Executive Director Fran Bolin. “The significant number of video visits held over the past year highlights the importance of family connections and should illustrate for all of us just how meaningful it is for inmates and their families to see one another’s faces in addition to hearing their voices. Supportive connections improve lives and ultimately, that is our collective goal.”

Even though the suspension of in-person visitation amid the pandemic is still ongoing in Virginia DOC facilities, the department is reportedly following CDC recommendations as it considers a timeline for the safe reintroduction of in-person visitation.