Jail Security Bolstered by Video Visits by Dana Treen

Posted: February 5, 2010 in News and politics

Jail security bolstered by video visits

To thwart problems as serious as contraband smuggling and mundane as parking, jails are turning to electronic assistance that keeps inmates and their visitors farther apart – sometimes by miles – than ever before.

The technology, called video visitation, can go a long way to eliminating situations like a case last weekend, in which a woman was arrested after Jacksonville police discovered her cell phone wrapped in paper towels in a jail bathroom waste basket. An inmate also was charged after corrections officers suspect he used the phone for an illegal call while cleaning the rest room in the jail reception area.

Both were charged with felony bringing or possessing contraband in a jail.

In Northeast Florida, two agencies have installed video visitation systems as part of jail construction. In St. Johns County, an inmate’s friends and family go to a shopping center 7 miles from the jail. From a converted storefront there, a closed-circuit system installed as part of a $14 million jail renovation connects them to the inmate, who remains behind bars in a cell block day room.

In Baker County, a new jail came equipped with a site for visitors who similarly talk with inmates sitting in a cell pod.

For years administrators for the Duval County jail system have been looking for funding to install a video visitation system for about $1.5 million.

In December there was a combined average of 200 visits a day at the three corrections facilities in the Duval system, said Don Redmond, assistant chief of jails for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

A new system could include an off-site location similar to the one used in St. Johns, the capability to use home computer viewing and online scheduling of visits, he said.

As in the case of the woman charged with hiding a cell phone at the jail, Redmond said visitors find ways to leave all sorts of contraband in visitation areas. Corrections officers have to sweep those areas for hidden stashes before they can allow inmate maintenance crews inside to do cleaning, he said.

SAFER OFF-SITE

In other counties, authorities said visitors stash drugs, alcohol and even cigarettes in visitation areas and along perimeter fences for inmates on maintenance crews to pick up.

Risque behavior such as indecent exposure, which agencies deal with when visitors and inmates find themselves in partially screened booths separated by glass, also could be controlled, Redmond said.

"We can monitor the visits themselves," he said. "People know if they do something inappropriate, they can be banned permanently."

Redmond said the department is collecting information from other agencies, including those in Broward and Orange counties, about their video systems. He said the St. Johns County system has an ideal structure. And because the visiting station is away from the jail, it also solves parking problems.

Col. Frank Cyr, director of the St. Johns County jail, said the system increases security, allows more visits and now permits younger children to visit. In the past, children had to be 13 and accompanied by an adult, he said. Now children as young as 6 are allowed private visits while the accompanying adult sits in a waiting area.

"It’s safer now at the off-site location," he said.

Cyr said conversations are monitored and recorded and kept for a year.

The system cost the county $680,000 and shares a U.S. 1 shopping center with a Food Lion, restaurants and other stores. In February the system will be 2 years old.

BETTER VISITS FOR ALL

Cyr said the hours that visits can take place have been increased as have the number of allowed visits. And corrections officers no longer must accompany inmates to visitation rooms, freeing them for other duties.

"We’ve actually had some compliments from the visiting public because they say it is quieter," he said.

In most jails, the days of inmates and family lounging at picnic tables in a prison yard are long gone and face-to-face visits are rare.

Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson said inmates are allowed a personal visit if they are headed to prison.

At the new Baker jail, visitors use a closed-circuit system to talk with inmates who rarely leave their dorms, he said.

Nassau, Clay, Putnam and Flagler counties currently do not have video visitation systems, though some would like to consider one in the future.

In Putnam County, a recent study of jail conditions pointed out damage to windows between visitor and inmate sides of glass visitation windows.

Most of the windows have damage created in attempts to pass contraband, the report said.

Lt. Johnny Greenwood, a spokesman for the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency is looking for a county-owned building away from the jail where a visitation facility could be installed.

He said the agency and the county have been discussing the project but that money remains the largest obstacle.

dana.treen@jacksonville.com , (904) 359-4091

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