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.
Ruggedized inmate stations at the Cobb County, Ga. Visitation Center. 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.
“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” videoconferencing system.
In the Offender Housing Units, the inmate goes to the “visitation booth” located in the unit’s dayroom. Each of the
Black Creek Integrated Systems’ Quad Pod Unit, which enables multiple visitations in a space-saving unit. 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.
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 system supports.
HOW IT WORKS
Black Creek Integrated Systems’ Single Inmate Web Station. 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 actual videoconferencing.
“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.
A bank of VisManager stations. “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.
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 facilities.”
Renovo Software Inc.’s VisManager 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.
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 support system.
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.
Telmate’s Inmate Visitation Station “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.”
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, he added.
“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.
Black Creek Integrated Systems Corp.:
Lafayette Parish Correctional Center Visitation Center:
Renovo Software Inc.: