Mo. jail video-only visitation policy draws praise, criticism
Using the system, people also can video chat with their incarcerated family members from home
The Joplin Globe, Mo.
NEOSHO, Mo. — A new video-only visitation policy recently implemented by the Newton County Sheriff’s Office for the jail could be the future for other counties as well.
But while such policies are becoming more common, they are not without critics.
On March 18, the sheriff’s department announced on Facebook and on its website that from then on, all inmate visitation would be conducted via a video chat platform called CIDNET. Even those who go to the jail will no longer be able to see family or loved ones through a glass partition but will have to use CIDNET at the jail.
Using the system, people also can video chat with their incarcerated family members from home on their smartphones, tablets or computers.
Officials say the new policy allows more access to inmates and will make it safer for officers and inmates, as well as decrease the amount of staff time needed to monitor and transport inmates to and from in-house visitation.
Some people who have visited with family members and loved ones in county jails say that while they see benefits to the new policy, they think in-person contact has value as well.
Newton County Sheriff Chris Jennings said people can still come to the jail to speak with family members for free, but they must use video chat portals in the jail, which are in the same area formerly used for in-person visits. Similar video chat portals are attached to the walls in each of the jail’s common areas, Jennings said, which inmates can use at any time during visitation hours.
But inmates are no longer brought to the visitation area, talking with loved ones on phones, separated by the glass.
To video chat with inmates from home it costs about 40 cents per minute, which is 9 cents more per minute than it costs to call them on the telephone without video, said Jennings.
Each inmate gets 15 minutes of free video visitation per week if someone comes to the jail, which is the same amount of time they had under the old visitation policy, Jennings said. But when chatting from home, there is no time limitation. Additionally, the inmates can still meet with their attorneys face to face with no time limit involved.
“It costs them a few more dollars, and that’s why we’ve got the free visitation if they can’t afford it or don’t want to spend it,” Jennings said. “But I think for a lot of them, it’s been worth the money to them to just talk to somebody at their convenience.
“We also opened it up from three days a week visitation to five days a week,” Jennings said.
CIDNET’s platform also allows for instant messaging, which costs about 10 cents per message depending on message length, Jennings said.
The video chat company provided all of the video equipment — including installation and maintenance costs — to the jail for free, Jennings said. To make its profit, CIDNET then receives a portion of the fee when people use the system from home, he said. The jail receives the other portion.
“All of that money (that the jail receives), by law, has to go into things for the prisoners,” Jennings said. “Whether it be equipment or new mattresses for the cells or something else. But it has to be spent for the jail. That’s all savings to the taxpayers.”
“Video visitation is getting very, very common,” Jennings said. “You’re seeing more and more of this in facilities, partly because there’s no cost to the facility. It works out good for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more common with advances in cameras and internet equipment.”
While most county jails in the area still allow in-person visitation — including Jasper, Barton and McDonald counties — the Greene County Jail ended in-person visits in October.
“It has really been more beneficial for us because now we’re not having to do as much inmate movement,” said James Craigmyle, public information officer for the Greene County Sheriff’s Department. “It makes the facility a little more secure because you’re not having to shuffle 600 plus inmates throughout a week out into the common areas outside of the pods.”
This was one of the main reasons for Newton County’s switch to video visitation, Jennings said. While Newton County has fewer inmates — around 100 each day — transporting people to and from the visitation area, and monitoring visitation, requires two of the jail’s seven officers and increases risks to both employees and other inmates.
“Any time somebody is able to move around, there’s always a chance of an assault,” Jennings said. “We have (had some assaults), but it has not been too bad. We usually man it fairly strongly, but there has been an incident or two in the past.”
The video visitation at Greene County has also allowed for longer visitation times and more visits throughout the week, Craigmyle said. Families no longer have to wait in line for long periods of time either.
“They were only allowed 15 minutes of in-person talking back and forth through a plate-glass window,” Craigmyle said. “Now we offer them 30 minutes free a week of video visitation.”
Craigmyle said that since the policy was enacted, most of the feedback from inmates and families has been positive, though one or two people have said they want the in-person visitation brought back.
“But a lot of these people don’t understand that we have 600-plus inmates here,” he said. “To get visitation for 600-plus inmates in a week is really stressful on the families, it’s stressful on the kids, and this just makes it a little but easier.”
Helpful but worrisome
Wanda Bertram, communication strategist for the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, said that while video visitation may seem beneficial on the surface, there are concerns.
Prison Policy Initiative is a research and advocacy organization dedicated to researching policies leading to incarceration, Bertram said. The group focuses a lot of energy into looking for ways in which private companies and public agencies are “partnering up to save money at the expense of the people behind bars.”
While introducing the video technology helps people stay in contact, “which we know is good in terms of reducing recidivism and helping folks prepare for the world outside,” Bertram said, she worries that reducing the amount of actual, “meaningful” contact that prisoners have with their loved ones could be “dehumanizing.”
“Nobody here is against technology. There’s reason why you would expect that having some technology in place to allow a visitation option that’s not on-site could actually be really useful,” Bertram said. “There is, I think, the potential for video calling to be very helpful technology. But it doesn’t usually play out that way.”
Although jail prisoners still get 15 minutes of free video time each week in Newton County and 30 minutes in Greene County, Bertram said that increasingly, some of the costs of incarceration are being shifted onto the people who are affected by it — typically people from low-income families.
“As the incarcerated population in the U.S. has gone up and up and up over the last several decades, there’s been this increasing pressure on the public agencies that have incarcerated people in their care to find ways of cutting costs,” Bertram said. “Striking contracts or deals with private companies, especially when the private company offers to set something up for you for free, can be incredibly attractive.”
Bertram said that to her knowledge, no individuals or organizations have raised any legal or constitutional challenges regarding jails eliminating in-person visitation.
“Thinking about things like the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, I don’t believe they have (been challenged) on those grounds,” she said. “I think probably the most interesting constitutional question that you could look into has to do with people’s access to their loved ones before trial.”
Typically, most people who are being held in county jails are still waiting to have a trial, Bertram said, meaning they are still legally innocent.
©2019 The Joplin Globe (Joplin, Mo.)