Bibb jail unveils new online visitation system

pramati@macon.comNovember 20, 2013 

Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said he and his staff are confident that a new online visitation system at the jail will not only help keep inmates in line, but also generate a steady revenue stream for the department.

On Wednesday, officials demonstrated the new videoconferencing system installed by Securus Technologies that allows family and friends to speak with inmates via a video system similar to Skype or FaceTime. Visitors can either visit the jail and communicate through one of 16 video terminals now installed there or have a visitation session at home.

“All they need is Internet access and a webcam,” said Stacy Fehrenbach, a Securus representative. “It’s another visitation option as opposed to having one visitation per week. It’s fantastic if you live out of state or if you’re away or if you are bedridden.”

The new system, which has been or is being installed in Tift, Troup, Fulton, Catoosa, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties, won’t cost Bibb County taxpayers a penny. Securus installed the system and will recoup its money by splitting revenue that the system generates with the sheriff’s office.

While visitation at the jail is still free, using videoconferencing costs $20 for 20 minutes (Securus is running a holiday special: $5 in November and $10 in December for the same amount of time.)

Chief Deputy Russell Nelson, who oversees the jail, estimated that the system would bring in about $4,000 per month, which would be put into the office’s commissary fund.

But Nelson and Davis said the primary benefit for the sheriff’s office would be that it means fewer deputies have to be deployed to the jail on visitation days. Previously, the jail needed four or five deputies on average to escort 20 inmates from where they are housed to the visitation room. Since each inmate can have up to three adult visitors, there was potential for the inmates to cause disruptions. Also, Davis said, inmates and visitors had made small holes in the glass partitions over the years, allowing visitors to slip small items of contraband into the jail.

That won’t be a problem now, Davis said.

“It’s going to cut down on that a great deal,” he said. “When they all were talking through the glass, the noise was deafening and the sound (through telephone receivers) wasn’t good. (Inmates and families) can have a more meaningful visit if it’s done remotely.”

While visitation to the jail still has limitations -- visitors must maintain a certain dress code, and if children are present, only one child and one adult are allowed to meet with an inmate at a time -- none of those restrictions apply to video visitations done at home.

Inmates and visitors are warned that all conversations are monitored and recorded, and deputies can immediately interrupt a conference at any time if there is inappropriate behavior. The units also contain a timer that keeps track of how long a session has gone. Once the time limit is reached, the terminal switches off.

Nelson said attorneys also will be able to videoconference with their clients. Those conversations aren’t monitored because of attorney-client privilege, Nelson said.

People visiting loved ones at the jail Wednesday had mostly positive experiences with the new system.

Linda Stewart, of Bibb County, who was visiting her son, said she can’t afford high-speed Internet at home, so she still visits the jail.

“There’s a lot of static on the phone sometimes, and it’s hard to talk,” she said. “It’s not the same as seeing someone through the glass. It has its pros and cons. I like to see him through the glass, and I want to touch his hand, but that’s not going to happen either way. ... There are probably places where you don’t get to visit. I visit every chance I get. I do want to be able to see him.”

Vashaun Rutland, of Macon, said she used the monitors for the first time last week to talk to her boyfriend.

“Honestly, (the videoconferencing) was better,” she said. “It was better than using a speaker. If I had a webcam, I’d do it from home.”

The system may still have a few bugs to work out. Rutland said she and her boyfriend were cut off even though the clock said they still had 10 minutes of visitation.

Davis said the county and Securus have been testing the system for several months, getting inmates and deputies used to the new technology. There are now 53 terminals inside the jail, which can house up to 966 inmates.

Fehrenbach said for residents who don’t have home Internet access or a webcam, they can use a public computer, such as one at the library. Some churches are also offering the service as part of their outreach.

Since inmates aren’t allowed personal contact with family and friends, Fehrenbach said a videoconference can be a morale boost because inmates will be able to see their homes, pets and other personal items.

“Parents don’t have to bring their kids to a facility,” she said. “There’s no limits on how many people can participate in a viewing. And you’re not imposing any danger to the facility.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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