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National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

www.NACo.org

 

 County jails join Internet video visitation trend

By Christopher Johnson
EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

 

Photo courtesy of iwebvisit.com

Video visitation rooms help inmates connect with loved ones anywhere in the world.
 

Friends, families and children may never have to enter a jail to visit an incarcerated relative again.

County jails from Minnesota to Florida are starting Internet-based video visitation systems that allow people to visit jail inmates from anywhere around the world.

If somebody is incarcerated in Florida but their grandma is in Ohio, they can actually visit them via their computer,” Charlotte County, Fla. Sheriff Bill Cameron said.

Faced with shrinking budgets, ballooning inmate populations and the complexities of managing visitations, jails around the country have increasingly turned toward the technology as a way of streamlining their operations.

The system works like Skype, where families or inmates pay a fee to chat over the Internet through a video screen. Families can access the system over the Web using any computer with a webcam.

A significant benefit of Internet-based video visitation to county jails is acquiring a new revenue stream. Each jail sets the cost and the visitors pay those fees. Prices vary from 35 cents a minute (up to 15 minutes) to $33 for an hour-long call — giving counties anywhere from $2,800 to $5,000 per month, usually split between the county and the company that helps host the calls.

The Internet-based jail visitation systems, which are currently active in 10 county jails and rising, began in 2010 in Ada County, Idaho. The sheriff’s office teamed up with Blackfin, a technology firm headquartered in Boise and introduced a system that employed netbook computer terminals with built-in webcams. The terminals were mounted inside the housing unit to cut down on inmate transfers, and visitation requests could be made through an automated email system. The system was the first of its kind in the country, Ada County officials said.

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The Dakota County, Minn. jail is the first in Minnesota to allow inmates to video chat with virtual visitors. Other counties in the state are looking to follow suit.

The video calls in Dakota County cost 35 cents a minute, as opposed to phone calls, which cost 50 cents a minute. Since the system went live in January, the jail has received between $2,800 and $3,300 per month.

Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows said that if the jail adopts the system permanently, “we’ll be able to pay for our equipment costs in the first year. After that, the money can be used for jail programs.”

Inmate video visitation systems have traditionally been installed in county jail facilities that handle short-term incarcerations which usually attract high visitation traffic because of the close proximity of family and friends. Internet visitation also allows other professionals, such as attorneys, clergy or social workers to cut costs associated with travel, searching visitors and other requirements.

The Charlotte County jail, the first in the state to offer video visitation, has been using its system since April 2011. For a $33 fee, visitors can avoid travel and see inmates face-to-face online for one hour. Inmates are allowed four online visits per month with an approved list of visitors, and the sessions are monitored by jail staff. Attorneys also can schedule private online visits. The fees are split with Montgomery Technology Inc., the host of the service.

This technology prevents the public from having direct or “physical” contact with inmates with some jails ending in-person visitation in favor of Internet-based video. It also frees up correctional officers’ time for traditional security duties, reduces the number of officers required for visitation, eliminates infrastructure dedicated to the traditional visitation process, reduces contraband infiltration and reduces the possibility of inmate confrontation, say its supporters.

Like phone calls, webcam communications do not go unchecked. Concerns include inmate access to graphic images or behaviors, or video visitors wearing inappropriate clothing or sharing criminal information.

Authorities in the jail and the host company can monitor the interaction in real-time and terminate the call should someone act inappropriately or illegally. If a violation occurs, the inmate and caller can be blacklisted from the system.

“We need to maintain security and make sure inmates adhere to the rules,” said Lt. Lawrence Hart, Dakota County Sheriff’s Office. “Two sets of eyes monitoring a call are better than one.”