Jails Go Hi-tech with Video Visitation

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Visitation at the nation’s jails has advanced to new levels as more and more facilities opt for hi-tech video features which some say are the “wave of the future.” >>>>>>Such a system is used exclusively in places like Maricopa County, Arizona and Collier County Florida and will, to a lesser extent, be part of the voter-approved jail being planned for Denver, Colorado.>>>>>A version of the attached article appeared in a recent issue of The Denver Weekly News.

Jails Go Hi-tech with Video Visitation
>>>>>by Adeeba Folami
>>>>>>Gone are the days when relatives and visitors of jail inmates could sit in the same room with each other, embrace and have physical interaction. That means of visitation gave way to another in which the incarcerated and their visitors were separated by a glass divider and communicated through a phone line. As technology continues to advance and change the corrections industry, more and more jails are making use of video visitation systems where inmates no longer have to leave their area of confinement to visit with family and friends who can be several rooms away or even in another city.
>>>>>>The visitation format for Denver, Colorado’s voter-approved jail, slated for completion in 2011, has yet to be set in stone, but earlier this year groups like the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) sounded an alarm after becoming aware that only video visits were being planned at the new facility. The group strongly opposed such an extreme measure, called “draconian” by CCJRC Executive Director Christie Donner, and instead stressed the importance of in-person visits to city council members and city leaders.
>>>>>>Their pleas apparently were taken to heart as now three forms of visitation are scheduled to be in place when the facility opens years from now. James Mejia, Project Manager for the Denver Justice Center and Jail, said in addition to video, other visiting options include: in-person behind glass, or personal visits. “We believe [this] is more progressive than most new facilities that are being built,” he said. In contrast, he cited the program used in Maricopa County, Arizona which, other than few exceptions, strictly uses video. “We think we need to offer other alternatives,” Mejia added.
>>>>>>Out of state success stories
>>>>>>On the other hand, Captain Charlie Johnson, spokesperson for Maricopa’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, (known as “America’s toughest sheriff”), highly praised the set up used in three county jails there. In a phone interview, he said that converting to a video only system was the “smartest thing” Denver decision-makers could do as it would increase efficiency and safety while decreasing staffing and budgeting needs. As proof of his claims he shared that visitors, more than 1000 per day in one jail, no longer had to wait four to six hours in order to see an inmate, and with visitation booths located right in the inmate living area, staff were no longer needed to escort them to and from a central visiting section. Johnson said that after five years, no complaints from those behind bars or their loved ones have been received. “Visitors like it better because they move so fast, there are no more long lines – they get in and out. They like the convenience factor,” he explained, adding that the technology in place in the facilities under his charge is of such superior quality that the reception and picture received on the monitors are better than most get at home on their DVD players.
>>>>>>Kristin Adams, spokesperson for Florida’s Collier County Sheriff’s Office said that two county jails there are in their second year of video visitation. She also mentioned convenience as a benefit of the program in that it allows a person in one area to visit an inmate locked up in another city without having to drive nearly an hour to do so. Like Johnson, she was unaware of any complaints from inmates or their relatives about hi-tech visitation.
>>>>>>Video at Denver county
>>>>>>In Denver, Sheriff’s spokesperson Daryl Brown, confirmed that the system is already in place at the county jail where computer consoles are set up in the lobby to allow visitors to communicate with inmates located in other areas of the jail. Previously, he explained, the standard practice was to allow in-person contact visits, however, those are now only allowed for attorneys or others conducting legal business.
Although the final procedure for the new jail has yet to be determined, Brown said the best technology will be utilized which might cause some level of discomfort to those used to the way things were done in past years. “Most of the newer facilities in the area do not provide full contact visits in the manner we did in the past,” he said. “We are undergoing similar changes ….. in the manner in which we are going to be doing business in the future.”
>>>>>>Donner remains active in monitoring developments and is grateful that Mejia and other justice center representatives have given ear to CCJRC’s concerns. She said the group understands the many advantages of video visitation but that the system is not best for families who struggle and in certain instances need more “satisfying contact” with jailed loved ones than can be achieved through a computer or television screen. The advocacy group’s efforts, she went on to say, have resulted in a re-consultation between city planners and architects who are now laying out a new plan for the downtown jail.
>>>>>>Pros and cons
>>>>>>In other cities, officials like Johnson continue to extol the benefits of video visitation. “I can’t emphasize how smart it would be for people in [Denver] to have that system,” he said. “For the life of that jail you will save millions in staffing costs and have a safer environment. It’s a win-win situation for whatever community puts it in.” he said.
>>>>>>Donner however, maintains that the same system can become dehumanizing if not balanced with other options such as those Mejia has verbally committed to have in place in the new justice center.
>>>>>>Adeeba Folami is a freelance journalist residing in Denver Colorado. She can be reached via her website: http://adeebafolami.com.