By Michael Grohs, Contributing Editor
For friends and family who want to visit someone, few groups would be more difficult and require more planning than visiting an inmate. Many prisons are rural. In states like Wyoming, they are all rural. Visiting residents of correctional facilities takes time, travel, and money for food, fuel, and lodging. Visiting hours are set.
Adding a hearing impairment to the matter makes it more of a challenge. Tidal Wave Telecom, says CEO Chris Talbot, is the leading provider of secured video relay (SVR) to jails and prisons for video calls by deaf inmates. The system was developed to replace the TTY machine, which was a sort of e-mail access via the phone for people with hearing or speaking limitations. TTY, though, is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the National Rehabilitation Act, or the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
There are, says Talbot, two types of video interpreting. There is video relay service (VRS), which is paid for by funds from the Federal Universal Service Fund, which is a tax that goes into a pool that pays for equal access. This is a huge fund that ensures equal access, so if you were to lose both arms, the government will get you access.
Tidal Wave’s SecureVRS® provides phone service for inmates who have a right to phone calls. Anyone over 50, says Talbot, likely has some sort of hearing loss. Tidal Wave partners with a VRS provider. Tidal Wave makes the recorder. Conversations are recorded for review, security, and public safety. Previously there had been no recording capability. A standard home-style system, such as Skype, is essentially giving an inmate a private phone with access to anywhere in the world. “Our product is a public safety issue,” Talbot emphasizes.
The system works by allowing deaf inmates to connect to a licensed video relay provider via a secure system. An inmate signs in to a special purpose video relay kiosk with their prison issued user ID and password. Inmates are only allowed to call authorized numbers. Each call is then recorded or not recorded based upon the profile that is associated with the number. (For example, calls to the inmate's relatives are recorded, but calls to their attorney or priest are not recorded). The call is then forwarded from the facility to the licensed VRS provider via the SecureVRS® Call Manager, which is connected to a licensed sign language services via the Internet. When the video relay interpreter answers the video call, an outbound telephone call is placed to the destination number. The interpreter then relays the conversation between the inmate and the telephone party.
One of the issues, notes Talbot, is that most installations are the result of a court order, and he stresses this to compliance officers. A common logic could be that the facility might not house any deaf inmates, but how do they know when they will get one? At a conference in Pennsylvania, he once asked the group if they had any deaf inmates in their facility. One attendee said that they had never had one, and then in one night they had four. The true need, he says, is at the jail level. For example, if a deaf person from out of town is arrested in Graceville, Minn., a farming town of 565, he or she would be entitled to one phone call. It used to be through TTY, but the courts said that TTY is no longer compliant. With SecureVRS, there is a method for deaf inmates to make phone calls and for those calls to adhere to public safety.
There may be resistance, says Talbot. It costs money, and it is a change to the policy, but he stresses that the savings can easily be found in the lawsuits avoided. Recent lawsuits, says Talbot, have totaled $250,000 to $750,000. A Department of Corrections has yet to win a lawsuit denying a deaf inmate access to VRS. “If an inmate needs glasses, they give him glasses.” He furthers, “Nobody knows how many deaf inmates there are.”
While video visitation for hearing impaired inmates is more of a compliance matter, for hearing inmates it can be a matter of convenience. Andy Shu, Business Development and National Accounts at Black Creek Integrated Systems points out, “We focus on how video visitation eliminates all visitors from entering a facility, which in turn eliminates contraband.” Video visitation, says Shu, benefits all. Inmates have more opportunities to communicate with the outside world. It opens up visitation hours. The systems are right in the pods, and some facilities allow visitation for 12 to 20 hours. They are autonomous, so there is no need for an officer to move an inmate, which is always a security risk. It benefits the visitor. It eliminates the need for travel. Some counties are very large, and a visitor might have to drive 90 miles each way. With the Black Creek System, visitors can stay at home, and COs can watch it live and record the conversation.
Black Creek offers the IP Visitor© Video Visitation System. They are not revenue based, such as a telephone company. (A while back the FCC clamped down on how much companies could charge inmates for phone calls.) The jail can generally pay for the system in a matter of nine to 16 months, experts estimate.
When an inmate is booked, they are given information about the system. There are also many fail safes. “We are very thorough with how we manage our system.” The system is user friendly. Visits are scheduled. If an inmate is moved from A Pod or B Pod, the system knows to move the visitation. If an inmate loses visitation privileges, the visitor is notified. The system incorporates different levels of approval when getting visitors approved or disapproved. Visitors have to set up a profile. They have to come to the facility in person for the first visit. In one case, there were two brothers: one had visiting approval, and the other did not. When the approved brother logged on and jumped out of view, the disapproved brother took his place. The system detected the switch and prevented anything from transpiring.
Currently Black Creek is working on facial recognition to further enhance fail safes.
Not only is visitation made possible for visitors, it is also possible to use in investigations. As Shu points out, in a road rage incident in Douglasville, Ga., 23- year-old Dewey Green rear-ended a family at a stoplight. When Janice Pitts exited her Navigator to investigate, Green repeatedly ran her over as her horrified daughter and grandson looked on. The defense proposed that Green had suffered head trauma in the accident and suffered a seizure despite the fact that the crash was light enough that the airbags didn’t deploy. During his trial, prosecutors introduced evidence of Green on a video visitation with his girlfriend as he danced around, said he was fine, and even did “the worm.” As a result, he was convicted to life in prison without the possibility of parole plus 40 years.
Not only is video visitation convenient, it can be therapeutic. A Securus Technologies spokesman points out that the U.S. realizes a 60%-70% recidivism rate, and the company is trying to help with that. They have been studying the metrics, which show that inmates’ chance of successfully reentering society increases significantly when inmates are able to see friends and family. In February 2017, the organization appointed a director of Recidivism and Reentry to assist in the matter.
Securus Technologies offers apps for both Android and Apple devices that allow for inmates to visit with relatives without the relatives having to travel, which can be a financial or physical challenge. Video visitation offers numerous advantages. It can eliminate long lines of visitors, manually manage visitation schedules, increase focus on the safety and security of inmates, officers, and the public. Securus Video Visitation is a fully web-based visitation system that allows friends, family members, attorneys, and public officials to schedule and participate in video visitation sessions with an inmate from anywhere with Internet access using a smartphone, tablet, or PC.
Traditional visitation requires COs to escort inmates from their pods to visitation areas. Those COs must remain constantly alert. No one can predict what an inmate will do, and what if the visit doesn’t go well? The visitation process offers benefits for the facility. In a busy lobby, people wait impatiently, and getting in line early to visit can add to that. Staff members are burdened with scheduling visits and determining inmate availability. New visitation lists are routinely hand delivered to housing units as schedules change. There are extensive screening processes for visiting family members. Visitors may struggle to hear loved ones in a loud environment. Remote visitation offers longer visits and can extend visiting hours without adding extra work for staff. Video visitation systems manage schedules without staff intervention and can schedule multiple visits and multiple visitors at once regardless of travel restrictions. Visits can be conducted in quiet and private settings and have increased visitation hours.
Brian Deuster, product manager, Video Initiatives, at Reston, Va.- based GTL points out that video visitation technology can particularly benefit small children who may be negatively affected by a visit to a corrections facility. Video visitation eliminates the crowds, the security, the pat downs, going through metal detectors, and having to wait for extended periods of time. Using video visitation, family members can see and speak with an incarcerated loved one more often and from the convenience of their own home.
The Douglas County Department of Corrections in Omaha, Neb., recently adopted GTL’s video visitation technology, including the online scheduling function. Deuster says that staff report that the online scheduling function reduces labor costs and increases convenience and safety for everyone inside the facility. Visitors can conveniently schedule visitations online or at a kiosk in the facility’s lobby at no cost.
There is, however, a backlash to video visits. In California, for instance, Governor Brown in June approved the state’s 2017 budget along with a measure that stops jails from continuing to replace in-person visitation with video calling and gives inmate families their first hour of video visitations each week for free.
It is reported by HBO’s Vice News that some prisoner advocates are supporting the ability to continue face-to-face visits. The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that 600 facilities in 46 states have implemented video visitation and 74 percent of jails that implement the technology eliminate in-person visits. Some family and friends feel the Skype-like visits are less personal. And video calls aren’t cheap either: one estimate says a call from home can cost $9 per half hour, which can create a struggle to pay that Vice News says is devastating families. As many as one in three families go into debt trying to stay in touch, they say.
Money talks. There is a financial case for remote video visitation when considering the number of officers needed to transport inmates, staff the lobby, answer questions, and schedule future visits. Video visitation offers an alternative to be able to redeploy staff and officers to work on other functions. In addition, the fee for the video call finances inmate programs. One company spokesman sums it up: “Pretty much everything we do saves money for the facility.”