Families who have relatives incarcerated at the DeKalb County Jail are allowed to visit them on weekends. But the traditional face to face encounters between family and inmates separated only by a glass barrier will soon be a thing of the past as the department prepares to install video visitation technology.
Sheriff Patrick Ray, in an interview Tuesday with WJLE, said video visitation technology has the potential to maximize security during the visitation process, minimize the introduction of contraband into the jail, and limit the number of corrections personnel required to monitor each visitation. The system may also be used to video conference between the jail and the courthouse during certain court proceedings. Under this system, prisoners could remain in their cells and communicate with the judge in the courtroom by way of video technology. This would keep the sheriff's department from having to transfer the prisoners from the jail to the courthouse for every scheduled court appearance. The system, however, could not be used for all court appearances or in every case.
Under the current system, family visitations are permitted on Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. for male prisoners and Sundays from 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. for females. According to Sheriff Ray, the jail typically houses an average of 95 to 100 inmates per day and a majority of those prisoners have visitors pay a call on them each weekend.
Family members wishing to visit with a prisoner are required to schedule an appointment on Fridays. The same will be true with the video visitation.
Sheriff Ray said that during a traditional visitation, the inmate is typically escorted from their cell to a special visitation room, where a face-to-face encounter takes place. The inmate and family members are separated by a glass barrier and each party must use a telephone to communicate with each other. Each visit requires a corrections officer to accompany the inmate from the cell to the visitation area. It also demands that someone monitor the visit for its entire length, normally up to 30 minutes. With a steady stream of visitors arriving during the course of the day, the demand placed on corrections staff is considerable.
The county commission Monday night authorized Sheriff Ray to proceed with plans to obtain the video equipment through Securus Technologies, at no cost to the county. The county already has a contract with Securus to provide telephone service that inmates use, on a pay per call basis, to phone relatives from the jail under an account established between Securus and the family. Securus receives proceeds from those calls and pays a commission to the county for the privilege of providing the service. "We have a contract with Securus Technologies, our inmate phone service. They have been our service provider for many years. We sat down with them two or three months ago and talked about video visitation for the inmates at the jail where the inmates can stay in the cell and not have to be transferred to a different part of the jail for the visitation. The family members will be able to come into an office in the jail and view through a television monitor the inmate in the cell." said Sheriff Ray.
After the system is installed, Sheriff Ray said the department will have the option of offering families video web cam visit opportunities so they can make contact with inmates from their homes or other locations. "This will actually open up the visitation to where if we should decide to offer it, a family member could actually be in California or somewhere else and do a visit through the Internet and a web cam to communicate with an inmate at the jail under certain conditions," he said.
Sheriff Ray said the ability to video conference during court proceedings will also be useful. "Another feature that we're going to have with this is our courtrooms. We hope, in the near future, after we get our video equipment in at the jail to have video to the courtrooms where the judge can sit and interact with the inmates by video instead of us having to transport them from the jail up to the courthouse. That will provide a safer environment for our correctional officers and the public. We're using probably four officers who escort the prisoners back and forth to court and on Thursdays we have at least fifteen to twenty inmates we take up there. This gives the inmates a greater opportunity to pick up contraband along the way. We usually find stuff that they've picked up, whether it be cigarette butts or something like that which they try to bring back into the jail. We usually find that every week. By doing the video conferencing, that will slow some of that down (contraband problem). The inmate will actually sit in the cell and do his court pre-trial stuff by video conference. It won't be used during hearings or anything like that and it won't be used for trials. It'll only be used for pre-trial stuff with the judge. It might be a bond reduction, to appoint them an attorney, or to reset a court date, and things like that. By doing this video conferencing, we won't have to carry them all the way over there to the courthouse, " he said.
According to Sheriff Ray, the county will not be out any extra expense for installing and using this equipment. "We had talked about the expense of this and what Securus Technologies could propose to us. They came back with about $80,000 worth of equipment that they are going to donate to us. It goes right along with our contract that we've had with them for many years. They have also guaranteed us our commissions that we've had over the last twelve months. That will not change. The county will get a certain amount of money for Securus being a service provider. They (Securus) will come in and do all the installation of the video equipment at the jail," he said.
Sheriff Ray further explained how the inmates make use of the telephone system . " Securus Technologies is our inmate provider and the family will set up a billing program with them (Securus). It has been costing them $1.50 for a fifteen minute call. Long distance calls have been costing a surcharge rate of from $3.45 to $3.95 plus 95 cents a minute. But now (under an updated contract agreement) there's only going to be a $2.00 surcharge plus 10 cents a minute. It is going up a little for local calls but on the long distance calls, it'll be a lot cheaper. They (inmates) have a phone in the cell. We turn on the phones at certain times. An inmate is then able to place a call to a family member who has an account with Securus Technologies. They can talk for fifteen minutes and then the phone call is terminated. But the inmate can call right back and it will cost them $1.50 for another fifteen minutes. Every call under this system is recorded where we can go back and listen if we have a problem. They can keep calling as long as there is money in the account. We also spot check through some of them just to make sure they're not planning escapes or something like that," said Sheriff Ray.