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‘Skype’ for Jail: Video Chat Moves Inmate Visits Online

long row of jail cells

December 13, 2013 By

The Yellowstone County Detention Facility recently implemented a system that will allow loved ones to engage in visits with inmates without ever leaving their home.

The remote visitation system by Telmate, launched Dec. 5, is said to be the first of its kind in Montana. It allows scheduled 30-minute visits via webcam for inmates to communicate with their friends and family members for $10.50 a session. The public links to the inmate through a Web browser, and the system in the detention facility resembles a pay phone with a screen. It's equipped with a camera and telephone for communication similar to what an in-person visit would entail.

"This gives you the option to schedule a visit at a time that is convenient for you and you can stay right at home," Justin Tidwell, a Telmate account manager, told KBZK. "It also saves you time and money from driving down here."

The system is also financially efficient for the facility. Yellowstone County Detention Facility Commander Lt. Sam Bofto said, "It's Telmate's equipment and what we do is, the revenues generated from the Telmate operations benefit the inmates."

For example, the profits will go toward the facility's GED program, anger management classes, chaplain and various other inmate activities.

The option of an in-person visit will still exist, but facility staff members hope the new remote visitation program will help cut down on traffic. The facility can hold up to 460 inmates, which makes for crowded lobbies and long waiting hours for visitors. In-person visits are also limited to one per week, while remote webcam visits are unlimited as long as the fee is paid.

Niagara County Jail in Lockport, N.Y., is also taking advantage of technology to make reaching inmates more convenient. As of December 2011, the facility had installed Web-based video-conferencing systems in the jail’s housing areas. The system is used to allow necessary professionals like attorneys, mental health staff and probation officers to engage in online meetings with prisoners.

In an interview with Government Technology, Administrative Capt. Daniel Engert of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office stressed the benefits of reducing the amount of physical visitors, like attorneys, the jail must accommodate. “Many of our inmates are being held for federal court in Buffalo, so their attorneys are located 40 minutes away,” he said. “This allows them to more effectively represent them, without incurring additional foot traffic here."

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