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Using technology to reduce recidivism: A novel approach to resident communications and resources

From a kiosk, tablet or handheld device, incarcerated residents can maintain critical family ties, access medical care and education and keep track of court dates while increasing public safety staff efficiency


Sponsored by Tyler Technologies

By Laura Neitzel, Corrections1 BrandFocus Staff

Today there are approximately 2.1 million people behind bars in the U.S. While that number represents the lowest number of incarcerated residents in the U.S. since 2008, the U.S. still leads the world in the percentage of a country’s population that is incarcerated.

Video visitation helps inmates maintain family connections that are vital to success on release.
Video visitation helps inmates maintain family connections that are vital to success on release. (Getty Images)

As a result, such diverse organizations as The Charles Koch Institute and the ACLU agree that America is falling short of its ideal of a society of equal rights and justice for all. This has led to bipartisan efforts to reform the prison system into one that respects the dignity of incarcerated residents and their families and ensures that residents have access to programs that help prepare them to be productive, law-abiding citizens upon their re-entry into society.

While reform efforts are designed to benefit both incarcerated residents and their families, these reforms, aided by the use of technology, can also create better work environments for corrections officers and improve facility operations as well. Technologies like VendEngine’s cloud-based software are transforming jail and prison operations by providing real-time information that make officers more situationally aware and processes more efficient and cost-effective.

Through the use of a kiosk or mobile device, residents can use VendEngine’s apps and modules to communicate with family and friends; receive and access funds to use for commissary, games, movies and other items; access legal and educational resources; file grievances; and request real-time medical attention.

Here are three key ways VendEngine’s apps are benefitting residents, families and corrections staff alike.

1.  Maintaining positive relationships

Visitation is not just a privilege, but it is also a residents’s right.  Numerous studies have shown that with easier access to communications tools, residents have a better chance of maintaining positive relationships with children, families and friends. This is a key aspect of reducing a resident’s risk of recidivism. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and visits were curtailed, VendEngine’s apps made it possible for residents to maintain communication with family and friends by replacing in-person visits with free emails, text messages and video visitations.

Since March 2020, VendEngine has provided more than 50 million free connections between residents and their family members through access to texts, emails and video visitations. 

“Families need connection points, so we decided that access to our messaging platform was much more than just about making money,” said Silas Deane, founder of VendEngine. “A family member can send a message to an resident for free, and the resident pays just a nominal fee for initiating a text, email or video visitation.”

While the pandemic gave jails and prisons a unique incentive to adopt VendEngine’s app-driven, cloud-based platform, Deane doesn’t see a return to the same level of in-person visitation post-pandemic. Text, email or video calls are simply more convenient and cost-effective for families.

“Now, Mom can be at home visiting her son or daughter right there on her cellphone using our free app from the house,” he said. “It’s especially touching when you see that a child drew a picture at school and can upload it and send it to Mom in prison. Those are the kinds of things that keep the family connected.”

2.  Promoting resident health and safety, court access to the benefit of all

VendEngine also promotes resident health and safety by providing access to free educational programs like anger management courses, life skills programming, GED programs and additional resources that will help them find a job, housing or medical help post-incarceration.

Having access to VendEngine via kiosks, tablets and handheld devices also makes it easier for residents to keep on top of their court cases without having to constantly rely on prison staff.

“A lot of times a resident just wants to know when their court date is,” Deane said. “Our system allows courts and/or jail administration to upload documents so when the resident logs in on the kiosk, they can look at the documents and see their court times, charges and release dates, reducing prison staff time chasing down these details.”

Another feature that benefits both residents and jail staff is VendEngine’s grievance management feature. Using this three-level appeals process application, incarcerated residents can file a grievance via a kiosk or mobile device that gets sent immediately to jail administration for response. The resident can appeal decisions and elevate a concern up the chain of command, all while maintaining an electronic record of the entire process for later access if needed.    

Requests for routine or emergency medical attention can be made through easy-to-access applications that request immediate help. More simple or less time-sensitive requests ─ such as prescription refills or to report headaches or other minor medical issues ─ can also be filed via VendEngine’s medical management app. The immediacy of electronic communications allows medical staff to be alerted immediately for emergency scenarios or also to simply log in to the portal remotely and view all medical requests in the facility, resulting in residents getting care more quickly.

Every grievance or medical request filed electronically through VendEngine is also logged and recorded, creating an audit trail and helping ensure that resident needs are being addressed.

3.  Improving efficiency and cost savings for facilities

In addition to apps that support residents, some of the same VendEngine features also improve cost savings and efficiencies for the correctional staff and the facilities operations. 

Deane reports that many facilities using their off-site video visitation scheduling and access system have seen a reduction in on-site visitation sessions by almost 80%, meaning that facilities can also reduce the number of personnel needed to manage visitations.

“From an efficiency standpoint, it’s great for the facility,” he said. “The less I have to have folks managing visiting crowds or managing paper, the more I can actually do my job, which is providing safety for the residents and ensuring a safe environment for residents and officers alike.”

The system also provides complete administrative oversight. To ensure that incarcerated residents are not using video communications for nefarious purposes, email, text and video communications are monitored, recorded and go through a content filter to flag certain keywords.

“This gives officers intelligence right at their fingertips on their mobile devices,” said Deane. He has seen situations where a resident escaped or was inadvertently released and intelligence from external communications led to the individual being returned to the facility.

Another labor-intensive task that has been alleviated by access to electronic communications is the management and distribution of mail coming into the facility. Through the use of the free incoming electronic messaging platforms, administrators have told Deane that amount of physical mail coming into the facility has been reduced by up to 85%.

Uniting for good

VendEngine was recently acquired by Tyler Technologies, allowing their combined power to grow even larger in achieving a shared vision of reducing recidivism by better setting up incarcerated individuals for success.

“We really like to listen to the needs of the facility, understand the challenges they are facing every day and then attempt to tackle that need through the use of technology,” said Deane.  A recent conversation Deane had with a jail administrator that really stuck with him illustrates a dilemma to be solved:

“A top problem many of my residents have is, when I let them out that door, they are now faced with a choice. `Do I go left or do I go right?’” the administrator told him. “Most of the time, they can’t even make that choice ─ they just sit down in the parking lot, because that is the moment they realize they have nowhere to go.”

“This is not a choice an incarcerated resident needs to be making at that moment in time,” said Deane.
“We want them to have a destination, a home, a job.” 

To address this need, the VendEngine  and Tyler team are adding features and resources that help incarcerated residents solve that dilemma by locating employment and housing for parolees prior to release, while they are still in jail. 

Regardless of what side of the political aisle they fall on, prison reform advocates agree that residents are better off when they can reenter society with the skills they need to survive so the revolving door of release and reincarceration can be closed for good.

“The more programs we can offer and the more we can connect residents with their family members is critical,” said Deane “We need that as a society and we can see that law enforcement professionals appreciate that as well.”

To learn more about VendEngine, visit https://www.tylertech.com/EnterpriseCorrectionsVE.

Read next: How hand-held devices and kiosks open up a world of resources for incarcerated individuals

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