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Talking via Technology? Jail mulls video visitation
Shown is a video system at the Patrick County Jail. The Henry County Jail is exploring the possibility of installing a video visitation system. (Contributed photo)
Monday, September 10, 2012
By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer
The Henry County Jail is exploring the possibility of installing a video visitation system, and sheriff’s officials are trying to balance their desire for increased security with the logistics of adding new hardware to an old building.
As the use of video chat software has exploded nationwide, local jail facilities have seen the benefits of its use in their facilities. In Henry County, Sheriff Lane Perry hopes to add kiosks to the jail to turn the vast majority of visits with inmates into video chats.
Though Perry said the exact setup of the video terminals has yet to be decided, he described them as a video monitor mounted to the wall with a built-in camera and phone handset attached. Ideally, Perry said, each cell at the jail would have one of these units in it.
The main concerns, Perry said, are security, increasing staff efficiency and eliminating the passage of contraband to inmates.
“Always, efficiency is your motivation,” Perry said Friday. “That includes safety. In the old system, you had to remove each inmate from a cell, take him down a corridor, take him to another corridor where they met with their family member, then take them back.”
Since local jails typically attract large numbers of visitors, Perry believes video systems can significantly cut down on security risks, both internal and external.
“Unfortunately, occasionally, someone who comes to the jail does try to leave drugs outside for people to find,” Perry said. In addition, he said, allowing inmates to visit via a kiosk will prevent things such as fights or discussions between inmates, which could affect court cases.
“The officer will never have to remove an inmate from a cell. Every time you get them in and out, it can be an issue of safety,” he said.
Henry County Sheriff’s Lt. Col. Steve Eanes said the biggest hurdle is adding the hardware, cables and electrical infrastructure to a facility that was built in 1974. Though funds for the project have been appropriated by the county and bids have been submitted, the project still is very much in the exploratory stage, he said.
“I think right now we’re at a 50-50 point,” Eanes said. “We’re very hopeful that it will work, but getting the camera in the cells will be a challenge.”
The Henry County Board of Supervisors appropriated $33,919.82 to buy the units Aug. 28. These funds were combined with a previous appropriation of $71,754. About half of the total funds have come from the $1.50 per day charged to inmates in the jail, Eanes said.
The sheriff’s office has accepted bids from four or five vendors with different ideas for how to install the hardware and software.
Eanes also hopes the monitor units will be built into the wall of each cell in the jail, allowing inmates the ability to see their visitor while speaking to them in relative privacy. Since each cell houses several inmates and, therefore, will have multiple users, Eanes says solid construction of the kiosks will be a must.
“Most cells have 22 to 25 inmates in them,” he said. “Nothing is indestructible in a jail, but this will be close to it.”
Eanes said he hasn’t seen a video system that has been added to an existing facility, so there is a possibility that a test case will be done in a single cell.
The Patrick County Jail has a video system that was installed as the jail was built. Each inmate sits at a “pod,” similar to a computer work station at a library, where they can see their visitor on the computer monitor and talk on the phone handset.
Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith said the same concerns mentioned by Perry and Eanes — security and eliminating foreign materials — went into the decision to add the video stations when the jail opened in February 2011.
“The primary reason is to establish better control of the inmates and to eliminate the infiltration of contraband into the jail,” he said, “and we’ve found that it’s very effective.”
Visitors to Patrick County must go through security checks as they would for an in-person visit. They then move to a terminal at the front lobby of the facility. Though the technology exists to allow visitors to chat online from their homes, Smith said Patrick County chose not to go that route.
Perry, however, sees potential for other uses should Henry County gain the ability to take the video software online.
For instance, it could allow for things such as bond hearings and arraignments to be done by a judge through a video monitor, eliminating the need to move multiple inmates around the jail.
“This will really pay off when the bulk of the state is doing this,” Perry said. “At our facility, we may not have to take six or eight inmates and have them sitting in the courthouse.”
Perry hopes a vendor and an installation plan will be chosen by the end of this year. After that, he said, installation could take an additional six months.
Once finished, he said, potential visitors should be warned that their conversations still will be monitored, just as they are in face-to-face chats.
“If people think they are going to come in and expose themselves to people, it has software built in to prevent that,” he said. He added that information gleaned from recorded visitations can be used in court.
Mainly, though, jail officials intend to use the system as an added layer of security and as a way to help jail employees maximize their time.
“Will this replace officers? No,” said Perry, “but this will help maximize their time and help them focus on doing other things rather than just moving inmates.”