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Sheriff: Video visitation taking off at Miss. jail

In the less than four months the service has been operational, inmates have had more than 13,000 visits -- four times the number of in-person visits in the last year

By William Moore
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

TUPELO, Miss. — To say video visitation at the Lee County Jail has been well received is an understatement.

In the less than four months the service has been operational, inmates have had more than 13,000 visits. That is more than four times the number of in-person visits at the jail in the preceding 12 months.

“It is definitely being used,” said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson. “They can visit seven days a week, anytime between 8 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. It helps us out as well, because the jail staff is not having to move inmates from a secure area to the visitation area and then back again.”

Similar to Skype or FaceTime, family or friends are able to log into the system via computer, tablet or smart phone while inmates remain in a secure area of the jail. The service, which also allows inmates to receive text messages and photographs, doesn’t cost the taxpayers a penny. An outside company paid to install the video phones in the pods, as well as the hardware and software to allow inmates to appear before justice, chancery and circuit court judges without ever leaving the jail.

“It’s a win-win-win for us,” Johnson said. “We are able to offer additional services and it is all paid by the inmates. And we get a percentage of the fees. That money goes back to the jail to purchase supplies – mats, blankets, toiletries.”

The amount the county gets back from the services has fluctuated as the inmates and their families figure out the system. The text message/email service has already been used more than 26,000 times, but less than 1,000 pictures have been sent.

The number of video visitations grew exponentially over the first three months, before dropping slightly in the fourth month. The service started Aug. 8 but saw less that 600 visits that month. The number doubled to 1,200 in September and exploded to more than 6,000 video visits in October as the system caught on with inmates and their families.

“When it first started, (the outside company) was charging a $7.50 flat fee for a 15-minute visit,” said Lee County Jail Administrator Capt. Bryan Hall. “But people were calling from places where they didn’t have the best cell service and were getting cut off. They didn’t like paying the full price if the call only last two minutes.

“So the company switched to a per-minute rate. Right now, they are running a special where it is just 25 cents per minute.”

Just like all phone calls to inmates are recorded, all video visitation, text messages and photos are recorded and monitored. If someone uses certain words during a visit, the system flags the visit to be reviewed.

“If someone sends an inappropriate picture (nudity), the system automatically shuts down and both the sender and the inmate are held responsible,” Johnson said. “We have already had to flag a bunch of visits. They try to push the envelope.”

While some inmates might be attempting nefarious things, most just want a touch of home that was not available before. In-person visitation at the jail is only at certain times and limited to just two people, who must be 13 or older. Video visitation is not limited by time or the number of people. And because people can visit on a smartphone or tablet, the location can be almost anywhere.

“They now can see a newborn child or visit a sick relative at the hospital,” Johnson said. “We had one attend a child’s birthday party.”

One inmate “attends” a Bible study group every Sunday. Inmates have even been taken on tours of the homeplace to show nothing has changed.

The video system is changing the way people visit inmates, but it may not mean an end to in-person visitation. There was a marked decrease in in-person visitation in November, with the lowest per-month total in the past 14 months. But in October, when video visitation soared to 6,181 visits, the in-person visits also set a high for the previous 14 months.

The Lee County Jail has six in-person, non-contact visitation booths. The visitors and inmates are separated by glass and speak through a telephone-style handset. Male inmates have visitation Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, depending on which pod they are housed. There are six different 15-minute times slots. Female inmate visitation is on Thursdays and there are only three time slots.

The numbers show that more people are taking advantage of video visitation. But in-person visits are holding steady. It could be that the folks taking the video route, are now opening up more in-person slots for others.