Ohio counties to add video visitation for inmates

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — Jail officials in two Ohio counties plan to allow inmates to meet with their lawyers, family and friends using remote video access.

Montgomery and Warren counties in southwestern Ohio want to use the technology to reduce security risks and improve the use of jail staff, while offering a convenient alternative to face-to-face visits.

The move also could raise additional revenue, since inmates or other users would be charged for the service.

Once they begin using video visitation, the counties' jails would be among fewer than 200 jails nationwide currently using the service, the Dayton Daily News reported, (http://bit.ly/1jkdyiN ).

"Grandmother can sit right (at home) and talk to her grandson," Warren County Sheriff Larry Sims told Warren County's commissioners last month.

Sims' office projected that charging $10 for 20 minutes of video visitation would amount to between $30,000 and $40,000 in extra revenue annually, while reducing security risks associated with moving inmates around the jail for about 13,000 visits a year.

Commissioners directed Sims to begin seeking bids from potential providers.

Chief Deputy Rob Streck of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office said that agency hopes to have the video visitation available for attorneys to meet with inmates by the end of the year. The service would later be broadened to inmates' family and friends.

Montgomery County plans to add the service at no cost to the county through an existing contract for inmate phone services, Streck said.

The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing the technology to study its effectiveness and how it affects inmates or visitors with hearing and visual disabilities.

Erik Crew, who focuses on human rights in prisons at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, said his group supports video visitation, provided it's affordable and easy to use.

"Evidence shows that people are more successful once released from jail when they get more contact when they are in," Crew said. "Anything that helps families stay connected is positive."

But problems have arisen involving video visitation systems in Washington, D.C., the Phoenix area and in Austin, Texas, said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative.

He said some systems are complicated to operate and prone to breakdowns.

"That's not what Grandma needs," he said.

Some systems also are replacing face-to-face visits with friends and family who drive to jails.

Advocates also warn of the need to prevent vendors from overcharging for the service. So far, rates vary from 25 cents to $1.29 a minute, Wagner has found.

Wisconsin-based TurnKey Corrections, which offers remote video visitation at 50 jails around the country, including in Sandusky in northern Ohio, charges just under $6 for a 15-minute video call, said company President Patrick McMullan.

"It's cheaper than driving to the facility," he said.

While calling for competitive bidding before adding the service, Warren County Commissioner Dave Young said he liked the proposal because it could generate revenue.

"Again, this isn't a hotel. This is a jail," Young said. "Either you can afford to do that or you can't."

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