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TMCNet:  Catawba inmates 'visit' via webcam

[January 21, 2013]

Catawba inmates 'visit' via webcam

Jan 19, 2013 (The Charlotte Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Family and friends wanting to stay in touch with an inmate at the Catawba County jail can now "visit" with them using a home computer and a webcam.

Like most other jails across the country, Catawba has long allowed in-person visits at its detention center. And the jail has previously offered a form of video conferencing for visits.

But Sheriff Coy Reid said the new system could make it easier and less stressful for relatives and others to communicate with people who are in custody without having to travel all the way to the facility. For example, he said an inmate who hadn't been able to see his 6-year-old daughter at the jail can now see her every day with the video system.

More than 100 inmates used the system in December, he said.

It is unclear how many jails in the country use video for visits, and the systems vary by facility. Last fall, The New York Times reported that video visits were possibly being used by hundreds of detention facilities in 20 states.

Officials say that in addition to connecting families with inmates, the use of video can improve safety at the jail because it reduces the distances inmates must travel within the facility for visits and can cut down on the amount of people walking in and out of the jail.

At least one other county in the Charlotte region uses video for some of its visits.

In Iredell County, anyone wanting to visit someone in custody at the county's jail annex must use monitors set up in rooms at the main jail eight miles away. The inmate connects to them via a monitor set up in a pod at the jail annex. Capt. Bert Connolly said Iredell officials are looking at possibly expanding its use of video in the next year.

Jail visits are generally considered a privilege for inmates, though some say it helps them stay connected with relatives and others outside of jail and can make for an easier adjustment once they leave custody. In North Carolina, individual sheriff's offices can determine the manner and frequency of visits at detention centers.

In many communities, jail visits involve the inmate and their visitor sitting across from each other with a piece of security glass between them. They talk using telephones set up on either side of the security pane.

Catawba still will allow people to come in to its jail for in-person visits, which occur three hours a day. But the Web visits will be available every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Reid said Catawba previously had monitors in its lobby to let people talk with inmates via video. But he said technical problems led the county to consider another way to handle visits.

Catawba is contracting with a Virginia-based company for its video system. Reid said he learned about the service while attending a national meeting with other sheriffs.

Under the Catawba system, an inmate uses a computer to schedule a visit. At the designated time, they'll then place a call from a telephone and monitor in the jail block. Detention officers can monitor and record the calls, and inmates can lose their jail privileges if they violate policy.

Calls cost 50 cents a minute and Reid said there isn't a time limit for calls.

The vendor is paying for maintenance of the system, and the Sheriff's Office eventually will get 30 percent of money made from the calls.

Other counties have experimented with video, or hope to begin using it in the future.

Mecklenburg County used video in the past for visits with inmates that were housed at the jail annex, and it could be considered if the county builds a new jail.

But officials are not discussing whether to adopt video visitation at its existing facilities, said Julia Rush, a spokeswoman for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office.

Mecklenburg inmates are allowed one 30-minute visit per week, and can also make collect calls to those outside the jail.

The Sheriff's Office also offers a messaging service through a third-party vendor where someone can send a note to an inmate that is printed at the jail. Inmate replies are written on those printouts, scanned, and returned to the sender.

Elsewhere, the Gaston County Sheriff's Office has talked with several vendors about offering a video service but there is no timetable for when the county could adopt such a service, said jail administrator Kim Johnson.

In Union County, the Sheriff's Office hopes to begin using some form of video visitation as early as this year, said Capt. Jeff Outen. He said officials there have been talking about the idea since at least 2008 and planned to incorporate it into a new jail.

But that project has been delayed, and officials are now talking with vendors about how to add video visits to the current jail.

Outen said that initially, Union could set up an area in the county courthouse for visitors to log into the future system. A detention officer would be able to monitor the videos in another area.

Later on, Outen said the county could look at allowing visitors to sign in for the Web visits at their home or another site.

Summing up, Reid has publicly touted the new webcam system in Catawba as "the wave of the future for correctional facility visiting." ___ (c)2013 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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