By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic – especially in the early days – was tough on everyone. That was no less true for folks incarcerated at the Carter County Detention Center, who lost all contact with family while the institution was in quarantine.
“It was bad for morale,” Carter County Jailer R.W. Boggs explained.
So, when he saw an opportunity to fill that gap with technology, Boggs took advantage of it. As a result, he said, the jail can now offer video visits, which offer a number of advantages over traditional visits according to Boggs.
The most obvious is safety. The risk of COVID infection, especially in a confined population, is still real. Encouraging more video visits helps, Boggs said, helps keep that risk down for everyone involved.
“It COVID proofs your visitation,” Boggs said.
The one downside to this is the access to technology. All of the inmates have a station in their cells where they can take video calls. But in order to call in, you have to use a computer, smartphone, or other device to access the service. If a family doesn’t have one of those devices, or doesn’t have broadband access, they can still come to the jail for a visit. But, for the time being, even those visits will be conducted through video conferencing rather than face-to-face.
In the area of the jail where visitors used to be able to sit across from loved ones, with thick glass between them, and speak on telephone handsets there are now several video-conferencing kiosks set up. When you come to the jail now, you speak to the person you are visiting from their cell via these stations, at least for the time being.
Boggs explained that even though the inmates were still separated by glass, keeping them out of the corridors unnecessarily will help prevent the spread of COVID and other illnesses throughout the jail. In fact, he said, illnesses across the board are down since implementing the new system.
The system also provides increased security, according to Boggs and his staff. For one thing there are fewer chances for incidents when moving inmates to visitation areas.
“There’s no longer any issues with keep-aways, as far as like, you know, ‘this cell can’t be around this cell,’ because of keep-aways, co-defendants, and things like that,” Boggs said.
For another, they said, it cuts down on chances for visitors to pass contraband to inmates.
All interactions are also able to be monitored in real-time, and are recorded should they need to be reviewed in the future. There has never been an expectation of privacy in visits, Chief Deputy Shawn Moore explained, as he sat in front of a large computer monitor that allows him to watch visits in real-time, or to review recordings. Guards have always monitored visitations, he said. Now, though, they have the ability to more closely monitor multiple visits. And, if they overhear something important, they have the ability to review it.
It isn’t just advantageous for the jail staff, according to Boggs. He said it also makes it easier for inmates to have more interactions with family, especially those with family who are further away. Traditional visitation isn’t just limited by the pandemic. Even when things are normal, families have to have the time to travel to the jail. They have to fit that visitation within the jail’s scheduling system. They have to pay for the gas to make the trip for the jail.
It’s a lot of moving pieces, for what usually ends up being a fairly short visit. But now, Boggs explained, for about the same cost as a phone call, they can set up an account and visit, face-to-face, in real-time. It’s cheaper than the gas spent on travel – Boggs said the cost is, “four to five dollars for a 20-minute (visit)” – and it’s also the kind of thing that a family member can more easily fit into their busy day.
“Used to, if someone was coming from four hours away to see one of the inmates, now they can just schedule their visit through the visitation scheduler, (and) it notifies the inmate of the time of that visit.”
Those who wish to use the system can set up their account online at securus.org, Boggs said, or download the Securus app for their telephone or tablet.
Boggs said it isn’t just a COVID concern anymore. The video visits will be here to stay, even once the pandemic ends. It’s one of the many improvements he says he’s brought to the jail under his tenure, and, he said, one more revenue stream for the jail. While none of them are significant, by turning things that have traditionally been costs for jails – healthcare, visitation, etc. – into revenue streams, Boggs says he believes he has the jail building firmly on track to be paid off in 2023. That, he explained, is when the penalty for early pay-off of the loan ends.
“The good thing for Carter County… is it’s a lucrative contract that we have for the county,” he said. “We increased the monthly revenue we had gotten from just general phones, however still being able to bring the cost down to inmates’ families. So the cost for these calls is lower, but our monthly guarantee from the company is higher, because people are going to be more apt to use it.”
Along with the contract, he said, he was able to secure a $150,000 bonus from the company.
“I’m going to use it to finish paying the jail off,” he said.
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