Jail officials in Montgomery and Warren counties want to offer inmates remote video access to their lawyers, family or friends, using technology currently under review by the Federal Communications Commission.
Experts estimate that fewer than 200 jails nationwide currently offer remote video visitation but said the option is being promoted by vendors to jail officials around the the U.S.
The service is envisioned as a way to improve security and use of manpower in jails, while offering a convenient alternative to face-to-face visits for family or friends of inmates.
“Grandmother can sit right (at home) and talk to her grandson,” Warren County Sheriff Larry Sims said during a presentation on Tuesday, Feb. 18, to the Warren County Commissioners.
Remote video visitation also is seen as a way to raise additional revenue for jail operators and the vendors providing the technology. Sims’ office projected $30,000-$40,000 in annual commissions, while reducing security risks associated with moving inmates around the jail for about 13,000 visits a year.
The county proposes to charge either inmates or other users $10 for 20 minutes for remote access under the plan.
The FCC currently is gathering suggestions on if and how to regulate video visitation as part of work on rates charged for inmate calling services.
“We seek comment on specific ways in which advanced services help to address security concerns and whether such advancements reduce costs. We also invite comment on ways in which advanced services could affect access for inmates with disabilities, and communications between abled inmates and their friends and family with disabilities,” the FCC wrote in a report and order released last fall.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office is developing a plan to offer remote video visitation — first to lawyers otherwise required to visit clients in jail.
“We’re definitely hoping that by the end of this year that we have the attorney side of this going,” said Chief Deputy Rob Streck of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. “Then we’ll concentrate on the family and friends visitation part.”
Montgomery County plans to add the service at no cost to the county through an existing contract with PayTel for inmate phone services, Streck said.
In Warren County, commissioners directed Sims and sheriff’s office and technology staffers to seek bids from potential providers, rather than move ahead with a proposal for ICSolutions to install the $150,000 system at no cost to the county. The original Warren County proposal calls for replacing face-to-face visitation with video visitation for inmates.
Officials in Clark and Miami counties said they are exploring video visitation at the jail or remotely. Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said he had spoken with two vendors, but made no decision.
Butler County jail visitations by family or friends have been done by video at the facility since construction of a new jail in 2002, officials said.
“When we built this jail, that was the cutting edge,” said Sgt. Monte Mayer of the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.
Lawyers and clergy still are allowed face-to-face contact.
About four years ago, remote video visitations were offered at a minimum security jail in Butler County, but discontinued for lack of use, Mayer said. Recently jail officials have started studying the possibility of offering this option, first to lawyers from outside the area representing inmates held on federal charges, Mayer said.
ICSolutions planned to recoup its costs over four years through fees on phone calls and remote visitation, according to a packet of materials provided to the commissioners at a Feb. 18 presentation.
Advocates see pros and cons
The Ohio Justice and Policy Center favors video visitation, provided the service is affordable and easy to use, Advocate Erik Crew said in an email.
“Evidence shows that people are more successful once released from jail when they get more contact when they are in. Anything that helps families stay connected is positive,” Crew said.
While offering appealing alternatives for family and lawyers, Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said there have been issues raised by video visitation systems in use in Washington D.C.; Maricopa County, Ariz.; and Travis County, Texas.
“It’s all about how they do it,” Wagner said, estimating that more than half of “a couple of hundred” jails with video visitations offer remote access. Industry groups said there are no statistics available.
Some systems are complicated to operate and prone to breakdowns, Wagner said. “That’s not what Grandma needs.”
In some places, the systems are being used to replace face-to-face visits in which participants typically are separated by panes of glass.
“That’s really cruel to make people drive to the prison and use a video screen,” Wagner said.
Advocates also warn that officials need to prevent vendors from overcharging for the service. So far, rates vary from 25 cents to $1.29 a minute, Wagner found in a survey.
TurnKey Corrections already offers remote video visitation at 50 jails around the country, including in Sandusky, Ohio, according to Patrick McMullan, president of the Wisconsin-based company..
TurnKey charges $5.85, 39 cents a minute, for 15-minute video calls, McMullan said.
“It’s cheaper than driving to the facility,” McMullan said.
While calling for competitive bidding before adding the service, Warren County Commissioner Dave Young said he liked the sheriff’s proposal because it could generate revenue.
“Again, this isn’t a hotel. This is a jail,” Young said. “Either you can afford to do that (pay for the service) or you can’t.”