Increasing prison inmates’ communications with
family is considered to be a valid strategy for reducing
recidivism, and video visitation is a communications
method that is gaining acceptance among corrections
facilities, as well as by at least one member
of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Video visitation—especially videoconferencing like
programs in which inmates are contacted by
kin from the family member’s home—would serve
to keep the ties and relationship thriving, and that
will help reduce repeat offenders, Rep. John Dingell,
D-Mich., told Government Video.
| Ruggedized inmate stations at the Cobb County, Ga. Visitation Center.
“Recidivism rates increase, in part, because of
lack of communications between family and prisoners.
Technology has a big role to play in this
area,” said Dingell, who is a member of the House
Communications and Technology Subcommittee.
“This would be a real significant step forward.”
However, Dingell said he is concerned about the
increasing costs for inmates to call family, and he
expressed his concerns to the five commissioners of
the Federal Communications Commission during a
subcommittee hearing. “We have to keep the rates
for these new initiatives affordable,” he said.
VIDEO VISITATION IN PRACTICE
The Lafayette Parish Correctional Center in Lafayette,
La., is among the corrections facilities using video
visitation technology. When inmates receive visitors
at LPCC, they meet them via a “Video Visitation”
In the Offender Housing Units, the inmate goes to
the “visitation booth” located in the unit’s dayroom.
Each of the
LPCC’s 31 inmate visitation booths contains
a webcam and monitor housed behind impactproof
glass, plus a ruggedized telephone handset for
audio. Meanwhile, the visitor sits at one of 31 similar
booths located at the Lafayette Parish Sheriff Office’s
Community Corrections Campus. This is a former
elementary school located away from the jail.
|Black Creek Integrated Systems’ Quad Pod Unit, which enables multiple visitations in a space-saving unit.
Capt. Colby Barbier, the LPSO’s facilities management
manager, oversaw the LPCC’s video visitation
system’s design and installation in 2004. The system
was created to provide a safer, cost-effective alternative
to the old model of in-person, on-site inmate visits.
Video visitation requires far less manpower than
the old system, in which prisoners were escorted
physically from their housing units to visitation areas.
As a result, the LPCC has been able to increase visitor
access to inmates vastly: “Primary visitation hours
changed from mainly in the evening on weekdays to
all day long, seven days per week,” Barbier said. At
the same time, the LPCC has been able to free more
time for staff to address other more pressing jobs,
and to renovate the jail’s old visitation rooms for
“much needed storage and office spaces.”
Inmates’ reactions to the video system have been
mixed, but visitor comments have been more positive.
“Offenders were initially somewhat resistant
because they felt their visit was less personable,”
Barbier said, while the majority of visitors preferred
the new technology because they did not have to
go into the downtown jail. Barbier said inmates
have come to value the extra visitation time the new
HOW IT WORKS
The LPCC’s video visitation system is a custom
build, designed following a request for proposals
and selection of a company specializing in video
communication that selected and sourced all of its
components. Those include standard webcams and
19-inch monitors, plus Verint SmartSight S1600e
video server transmit/receive units to support the
|Black Creek Integrated Systems’ Single Inmate Web Station.
“Each booth has two coax cables, one fourstrand
communications cable and one low-voltage
power cable (for the camera) running to the equipment
rack at the respective site,” Barbier said. “The
furniture for the offender visitation booths are Norix
InteleStation Laminate Enclosed Wall Mounts with
Attached Seats. I designed the layout for the public
visitation booths, and it was constructed by our
maintenance staff utilizing offender labor.”
Institutions looking for turnkey video visitation
systems can find products made by companies such
as Black Creek Integrated Systems Corp. (of Irondale,
Ala.), Renovo Software Inc. (of Minneapolis) and
Telmate (of Ontario, Ore.). Those systems follow
the same model described above, albeit with the
prisoner visitation unit housed in a rugged metal
cabinet with impact-proof glass.
“With our system, you can support either onsite
video visitation at a public visitation center, or conduct
visits over the Web using consumer webcams,”
said Sharon Lewis, Black Creeks’s creative director.
“Visitors can register online to schedule visits, and
then conduct them using their own computers, or
camera-equipped tablets and smartphones.”
There are many good reasons for correctional institutions
to move to video visitation. Key among these
is safety, for both staff and inmates alike.
“Escorting inmates to and from visitation areas
can be extremely dangerous times,” said Christopher
Ditto, Telmate’s head of marketing. “The inmate
may be emotional and hard to handle.” Staffers also
have to guard the inmate from being attacked by
other inmates belonging to rival
gangs or who were involved in
the same crime, he added.
|A bank of VisManager stations.
Video visitation enhances safety
by preventing the exchange of
contraband weapons, drugs and
cellphones between visitors and
inmates. “Remote video visitation
completely eliminates contraband
brought in by visitors,” Lewis said.
“It also allows prison officials to
monitor and record each visit,
both to watch for secret gang-related messages,
and for use as evidence later on if the situation
requires it. Additionally, video visitation as a service
is becoming a source of revenue for many cashstrapped
In-person prison visits are anything but pleasant.
Visitors have to endure security checks and entrance
into the harsh, brutal world of institutional life. Add
the fact those facilities are anything
but family-friendly, and are located
in remote locations that are difficult
to get to, and one can see why
in-person visits are not something
most people look forward to.
|Renovo Software Inc.’s VisManager
In particular, “The last thing
you want is for weekend prison
visits to be ‘normal’ for inmates’ young families,”
said Tim Eickhoff. He is owner and managing partner
of Renovo Software, a maker of video visitation
management solutions. “This sends the wrong
message to impressionable children. It suggests that
ending up in prison is a normal life path for adults.”
Video visitation changes that equation. Visits can
be conducted in non-secured public facilities that
include playgrounds for children, to make the experience
less terrifying and unsettling. Meanwhile, conducting
video visits using consumer webcams allows
family and friend to visit from the comfort of their
own homes, making the visits and
the resulting interactions more
relaxed, genuine and frequent.
“Older and physically challenged
friends and family members
have an easier time visiting
from a laptop or smartphone,”
said Ditto. Video visitation also
enables inmates to be involved
in family events such as birthdays,
and it strengthens their
It is the increase in social support
systems that underlines video visitation’s
benefits to inmates. By spending
more time connected to the outside
world, they maintain their socialties. That reduces the temptation to form new, more
negative alliances with bad influences in prison.
“By the time they are released, these inmates
have something to return to, and more motivation
to stay clean and away from crime,” Eickhoff said.
“These are the tangible benefits that video visitation
can bring, not just to inmates and their families but
to society as a whole.”
|Telmate’s Inmate Visitation Station
It is clear that video visitation is a game-changing
application for correctional institutions, one that
provides benefits to prison staff, family/friend and
inmates too. That is why video visitation systems,
which first caught on in the U.S. southeast, are
finding their way into institutions across the country.
That said, not all systems are created equal. To
ensure a facility is getting the right video visitation
system, potential purchasers should ask vendors a
number of questions, Barbier said.
In addition, demand flexibility and non-proprietary
equipment if at all possible, Barbier said, and
seek out a preventive maintenance contract as soon
as possible, even when the system is brand new,
“The booths on either side should be able to
be on an intelligent-controlled point-to-multipoint
matrix, and not point-to-point,” he said. Being
point-to-multipoint, a matrix system can select whatever
route works best. That results in superior service
and better redundancy than a point-to-point system.
Video visitation systems should be IT-based
with software that supports automatic registration,
scheduling, notification, connection
and recording of video visits
with off-site retention of those
recordings. Also, “try to make the
entire system as autonomous as
possible, therefore reducing the
need for staff input and/or time,”
Barbier said. “And when powerloss
events occur, all equipment
should be auto-restart without
the need for manual restart.”
It is rare that a technological
solution cuts costs, improves safety
and provides potential benefits
to everyone who uses it. But video
visitation is one such solution. That
is why correctional institutions across
America are adopting that technology and
achieving tangible results.