Some area jail officials want to offer inmates remote video access to their lawyers, family or friends using technology currently under review by the Federal Communications Commission.
Jail officials in Clark and Champaign counties are still considering the option.
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.
Scott Springhetti, director of the Tri-County Jail in Mechanicsburg, said his facility is “nowhere close to getting it” but has been approached by communication companies and is considering it.
There are four regional jails in Ohio, and two have the technology.
Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail in Nelsonville has it and is having a good experience. Corrections Center in Northwest Ohio in Stryker has it and is having connection problems.
Springhetti said he is waiting for those jails to iron out the kinks, and then he will make decision. He plans to ask more questions next time the four directors get together to meet.
Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said he had spoken with two vendors, but has made no decision.
Remote video visitation also is seen as a way to raise additional revenue for jail operators and the vendors providing the technology. Warren County Sheriff Larry 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.
Officials in Miami County said they are exploring video visitation at the jail or remotely.
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.
Lawyers and clergy still are allowed face-to-face contact.
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.