By Luke Whyte
About a year ago, Sheriff Gary Raney of Ada County Sheriff’s Office in Boise, Idaho came up with an idea that is revolutionizing day-to-day operations and streamlining costs at his county jail. That idea was internet-based video visitations for inmate families, and it could very well be the future of how visitations are conducted in jails and prison across the country — including yours.
“When the idea first came, we were in a place that a lot of jails are familiar with,” said Sheriff Raney during a presentation on the new system at the 2010 American Jail Association conference in Portland, Oregon. “Our inmate visitations were very labor intensive and we were forced down to offering visits only three times per week.”
Raney was familiar with Skype, an online service that allows users to make cheap (often free) voice and video calls to anyone in the world with just an internet connection.
“I thought, ‘People visit each other via Skype all the time,’” Raney told C1. “There has to be something out there like this that makes it so people can visit prisoners from anywhere in the world, too.”
It turns out, however, that there wasn’t.
Seeing a new opportunity, Raney teamed up with Jefferson Jewell of Boise-based company Blackfin Technology in order to experiment with creating the first ever, completely internet-based video visitation system.
In less than a year, they had the first one installed at the jail. Since then, they’ve seen a 30% increase in inmate usage per week, every week.
But it’s not just inmates that like the system, internet video visitations offer a wide range of benefits in three of the most critical areas of corrections: Increasing security, balancing budgets and decreasing recidivism.
Let’s look at each of them one by one.
Benefit #1: Lowering recidivism
“It’s widely known that recidivism is decreased when inmates have stronger networks and connections with family,” Raney said.
Since installing the system in February, the Ada County Jail has been able to increase the regularity of family visitations from three days per week to seven days per week. This enables inmates to build stronger connections with a wider variety of (agency approved) family members and friends.
On the other end of the screen, no longer do family members have to travel from their home to the jail, process through security and sit in waiting rooms before visiting loved ones. Instead, they can do it from the comfort of their own homes.
This is particularly advantageous to children, Raney said. When a child frequently visits a parent in jail, they can become desensitized to the jail environment and warmed to the idea that it is “ok” to end up in jail one day. Instead, with the internet video visitation system, children see their incarcerated parents in a more positive light. Ada County has even tilted the inmates’ web cameras upward slightly so that other inmates won’t be seen in the frame.
As for families that don’t have at-home internet access (43% in Ada County according to a Sheriff Department poll), Raney teamed up with the local faith community and asked, “what would you think of putting a computer station in your church?”
The response was overwhelmingly positive and now many local churches are providing computer stations. Further, bail bond companies have started providing access stations too.
Benefit #2: Balancing budgets
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office invested around $110,000 in the installation of their internet video visitation system. $50,000 went into providing the infrastructure - drilling through concrete walls, installing brackets for the computers, etc. The other $60,000 went into purchasing the computers. With Blackfin at their side, Ada County was able to avoid the need to work through a third-party vendor, thus saving a ton of money in service costs.
Interestingly, Ada County opted to purchase $300 netbook computers for the inmate visitations – which come complete with webcams – as opposed to the $3,500 - $6000 that would have been required to purchase the more heavy duty hardened units you would expect to be necessary in the jail environment.
“If (the inmates) break it, I can just take the old one out and put a new one in and I’m ready to go,” Raney said. His agency is confident that this will save more money in the long term.
Inmates are charged by the minute for use of the system (at a rate that’s cheaper than a phone call). Since they’re able to provide visitations seven days a week, internet video visitations are leading to a lot of profits for the Ada County Jail.
Raney is estimating that within the next 18 months to two years, the system will have equated to over two million dollars in revenue.
Benefit #3: Increased security
Many of the ways inmate video visitations increase security are obvious; if inmates have less direct contact with outsiders, contraband risks are diminished. Others, however, are more subtle. For instance, internet video visitations greatly reduce the day to day burdens on staff.
From the beginning, Ada County’s policy with these systems has been, “what can we do so (the jail staff) don’t have to get involved?”
The result is a system that places the burden on the inmate instead of the officer. Inmates first send enter email address into the system for the people they’d like to visit with online. These email addresses pass through a jail filter system and, if approved, a generic “visitation request” message is sent to the recipients. If the recipients agree to an online visit, the inmate is notified and the burden is again placed on them to schedule all their own visits using a calendar of available dates provided (online) by the jail.
All visits are then recorded, allowing staff to review inmates’ interactions whenever necessary, and during the visitations, one deputy is able to watch over the whole process from a single location.
A rising tide
Since they first launched the system in February, the Ada County Sheriff’s Office has received numerous calls from departments around the country that are interested in learning more about an internet-based video visitation system, including larger jails like L.A. County.
If you, or someone at your facility, are interested in learning about internet video visitation, you can contact the Ada County Sheriff’s Office at firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll be happy to discuss their development process with you.
“It just makes good sense,” Raney said.