Will 'Skype for jail' replace in-person visits for inmates?
- By Kathleen Hickey
- Jan 24, 2014
Video visitation of inmates – frequently billed as a “Skype for jail” – is gaining momentum and could replace in-person visits altogether, according to corrections officials from across the country
Many jails and penitentiaries offer the service, which lets people interact virtually with prisoners over the Internet. Inmates usually use a video visitation station located in their cell block, while visitors use either a corresponding station elsewhere in the facility or any computer with an Internet connection and webcam. For corrections officials, the benefits of virtual meetings – in addition to eliminating the sheer expense and logistics of managing in-person visits – run the gamut from reducing contraband and inmate violence to improving health care through telemedicine and enabling more visits for inmates. In addition, visitors such as attorneys, clergy, investigators, social workers, and family and friends can avoid the inconvenience and costs associated with scheduling, travel and the facility’s security requirements.
Facilities in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida and Georgia, to name a few jurisdictions, all offer some form of the service.
In Jackson County, Mich., for example, Sheriff Steven Rand said video visitation would be easier for inmates and visitors with disabilities, as not all its visitation facilities are handicapped accessible.
The county is considering whether to install a Web-based video visitation system from Securus Technologies. The Securus cloud-based software features an administrative interface that gives corrections officials complete control of the visitation, the company said. Before being able to schedule a visit, for example, visitors must electronically submit user information and photo identification to the facility, which gives the corrections officials control over who is allowed to schedule a visit as well as the ability to restrict users based on behavioral issues. In addition, the firm said, staff can benefit from the automated scheduling process of both remote and on-site visits, and the facility management can increase investigative capabilities with detailed reporting and audit trails.
The Securus video visitation system can also monitor and record visits, allowing corrections officials to flag visits for later investigative review or to lock down recordings from being purged after the standard retention window expires.
Other reasons for the move to virtual visitation include improved efficiencies for staff and decreased security risks for issues such as contraband, said Rand. With a large inmate population, moving individuals is cumbersome and difficult, he added.
In Atlanta, DeKalb County jail is doing away with in-person visits by taking up video visitation. DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown said, “We’ve had issues in the past with contraband getting into the jail,” he said, adding that video visitation is also expected to reduce the number of physical altercations, reported CBS Atlanta.
Video visitation technology has been implemented in a variety of ways. Some jurisdictions are deploying the service as an enhancement, rather than as a replacement of their existing visitation policies. And not every county is offering the service for free.
The Alachua County, Fla., jail purchased technology from Renovo Software for online visitation, which began in December of last year, the Gainesville Sun reported.
While access to video stations in the jail lobby are free, online visits costs 40 cents per minute with a minimum of $8 per session, said Lt. Todd Kelly, with the Alachua County Sheriff's Office. However, the jail will still offer face-to-face meetings.
Video technology is being used to provide other remote services to inmates. Some prisons are turning to telemedicine to treat inmates, which can be cheaper, easier and safer than in-person visits. In June 2013 the Colorado Department of Corrections and the Denver Health Medical Center began a pilot telemedicine program using already-installed video conferencing systems for inmate consultations.
The Department of Corrections in Louisiana is also using telemedicine to treat inmates, in some cases via mobile devices with special videophones. Wind Currents, one of the providers of these systems, estimates a state can save $30,000 to $40,000 a month with its system, which includes a hosted Voice-over-IP platform, video software and special videophones, according to the Mobiledia website.
Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.