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Lester “L.T.” Irby is a medium-security prisoner in Youngstown, Ohio, doing time for a 1970s series of armed robberies in the greater D.C. area. Although March will mark his 29th year in the penal system and his parole comes up in a few months, right now he’s more concerned about something a bit more trivial: looking fat.

The camera will do that to a guy. Irby’s one of the few dozen inmates housed at the Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) controversial Ohio private prison facility who are being allowed free “VisualVisits” courtesy of Image Communications Inc. On Feb. 4, the Missouri-based firm began testing its technology, which beams the visages of Irby and his fellow inmates from Youngstown back to a small visiting room at Southeast D.C.’s Correctional Treatment Facility, also run by CCA.

The first day’s dozen test visits included a tearful video introduction of inmate Raynard Woodard to his 10-year-old son, Ricardo. Today’s visit, wherein Irby, 53, raps with long-time pen pal Alys Campaigne and meets Campaigne’s half-sister Zanna Gilbert, isn’t as poignant for either the participants or the invited media. But it’s no less instructive to Image Communications’ Dan Garber, who’s in charge of working out the technology’s kinks.

In between their extra VisualVisits—given in order to accommodate both the media and Garber’s fiddling with the programming—Campaigne and Gilbert tell Garber that the machine’s to-the-second 15-minute timer cuts off too abruptly, leaving them without enough time to say their goodbyes. Garber says he’ll work on that. “There are also slight delays” in the conversation, Campaigne adds, “like when I call my dad on the phone in Nairobi.”

Still, she says, “it’s great to see him.” Campaigne first became acquainted with Irby 10 years ago, through the mother of her then-boyfriend, who served as his public defender. They started corresponding in ’92. “He’s an amazing letter writer,” Campaigne says. “He’s hilarious.”

Throughout their brief visit, Campaigne, Gilbert, and Irby update one another on their lives. It’s a conversation so ordinary you’d never know the crime, punishment, and technology that went into making it happen. Campaigne, a 29-year-old congressional staffer, tells Irby that Congress is restoring the District’s home rule. Irby, in a neon-orange jumper, tells the two women about the prison’s programming on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Gilbert, 23 and fresh from Vassar, says she’s found a suitable stable for her horse. They all share their takes on the Superbowl.

In between visits, CCA guards in D.C. float in and out of the room, checking out the new service. “That’s so cool!” one says. Another one waves to a female guard in Ohio. “How you doin’, darlin’?” he asks.

VisualVisits are free for today. But, like all the players in the privatized world of the 21st-century jailhouse, Image Communications hopes it will soon turn a profit. To generate interest, February visits will cost $30 for 15 minutes. Afterwards, the company will raise the price to $45. Campaigne, Gilbert, and Irby argue that the price is excessive. “There’s no way that the families who would really benefit from this could pay for it,” Campaigne says.

Garber counters that the technology is state-of-the-art—his company boasts a $10,000 Polycom video view station and a $500 Toshiba TV among its accessories—and that similar technology for businesses runs $300 an hour. “If enough volume is there, we can keep the price lower,” he says.

Eventually, Campaigne has to run back to her job—she’s late for a meeting—but Gilbert stays a while, gossiping about Campaigne the minute she steps out. Irby, who escaped from the D.C. Correctional Facility in Lorton twice, now initiates a “conspiracy” with Gilbert. Instead of planning a break out, though, it’s a breakup that Irby has in mind: He jokingly suggests Gilbert should help him sabotage Campaigne’s relationship with her present boyfriend so she can reunite with his lawyer’s son, Johnny.

“I had a fantastic time,” Irby says as the visit comes to its close. “It was very nice meeting you, Zanna.” The screen goes black. Zanna Gilbert walks out. Out in Ohio, L.T. Irby is led back to his cell.CP