Experts agree there are benefits to video visitation at prisons and county jails.
It’s safer for detention staff. It allows more flexible visitation hours and possibly more time for visitors to talk with inmates.
For systems that offer remote access, it’s easier for people who live far away and more comfortable for children to be in their own environment.
But the fear, say some county leaders and inmate advocates who oppose the Durham County Sheriff’s Office implementing video jail visits, is that they would become inmates’ only connection to the outside world.
That is one of the reasons Durham’s Inside-Outside Alliance has started focusing on the issue, including a protest at the county commissioners meeting last week that led to the arrest of a youth pastor, a Duke University professor and four students.
“We don’t have confidence we will be able to keep (Sheriff Mike Andrews) from making it video only,” said Joe Stapleton, 27, a youth pastor at Cornerstone Community Church who was one of the five arrested Monday night and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and inciting a riot, all misdemeanors.
The Sheriff’s Office plans to launch a pilot video visitation program, in which inmates would meet with visitors via a monitor in the jail’s lobby, this summer.
Andrews plans to use a hybrid approach that will include both video and in-person visitation while he evaluates the program, spokesman Brian Jones wrote in an email.
“Based on the agency’s observations, the functionality of the program and user response, Sheriff Andrews will make adjustments to visitation, if necessary,” Jones wrote.
The Sheriff’s Office started moving toward video visitation in 2013. Andrews’ interest was sparked by giving inmate families remote access, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs wrote in an email.
There are two options for video-visitation. In the first, a person goes to the facility and communicates with an inmate via a screen. In the second, a person can use his or her own computer or mobile device. The latter typically cost users fees, according to Massachusetts-based nonprofit the Prison Policy Initiative.
The Sheriff’s Office hasn’t decided whether to offer remote visits or charge for them, Gibbs wrote.
Bernadette Rabuy, senior policy analyst with the Prison Policy Initiative, said more county jails are moving toward video visitation, while state and federal prisons are offering both in-person and video options.
Wake County, which no longer has in-person visitation, has been using video visitation since 2001. Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office moved to on-site video visitation last year, according to its website.
The Sheriff’s Office is implementing video visitation for staffing and security reasons, Gibbs wrote. Under the current system, visitors take elevators to the visitation area, where they talk with inmates through Plexiglas for 20 minutes. Video visitation eliminates the need for guards to escort inmates there.
The Inside-Outside Alliance was created about five years ago to support people in the jail and their families, said member Greg Williams. It also established a website, called Amplify Voices Inside, which publishes statements, letters and surveys from people in the Durham County jail.
In March 2015, alliance protests brought attention to inmates being confined to their cells for all but six hours a week to address safety. The Sheriff’s Office said the confinement was due an increase in violence. Recreation time increased incrementally until it reached eight hours per day in October 2015.
Inmates still spend eight hours outside their cells, but inmates continue to assault detention officers and other problems continue, Gibbs wrote.
From 2015 to 2016 detention officers’ use of force increased 15 percent from 279 incidents to 322 incidents, according to reports provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
After the jail increased recreation time, the alliance turned its attention to jail conditions, protesting health care access, the quality of food and demanding a community inspection of the jail.
Andrews hasn’t granted a community inspection, but he did ask the National Institute of Corrections to inspect the jail and made changes afterward, including switching to a new food vendor, having cells repainted and improving mental health services.
The alliance’s efforts led to the Human Relations Commission’s critical report on the jail. The city advisory board made 10 recommendations including shelving the video-visitation plan.
The Sheriff’s Office initially sought grant funding for video visitation and notified Durham County leaders about its plan in June 2013, Jones said. The program is entirely funded by a federal Department of Justice grant.
Since that time the Sheriff’s Office has been selecting equipment and creating infrastructure to facilitate video visitation. In 2015 and 2016, the jail moved to an online scheduling system, which can also be accessed through a kiosk in the jail lobby, to prepare for video visitation. Before the online visitation, visitors arrived at the jail during a housing unit’s visitation schedule.
“If there was an overwhelming number of people waiting to visit in the lobby, there was sometimes no guarantee all 20-minute visits would be completed within the allotted time,” Gibbs wrote. “The staff says they would sometimes have to shorten visits to accommodate all of the people who were waiting or extend visitation to 9 p.m. to accommodate the overflow of visitors.”
From 2015 to 2016 jail visitation dropped from 29,770 to 15,201. The detention staff haven’t explored why this occurred, Gibbs said.
“They’re unsure if there’s a link between online scheduling and visitation participation. They placed fliers in the facility lobby to help people transition to online scheduling and a detention officer assists visitors at the kiosk in the lobby,” Gibbs wrote.
Inside-Outside Alliance members said they decided to interrupt the Durham County commissioners by reading letters from inmates because they don’t think Andrews isn’t accessible and the commissioners are their best bet at raising awareness.
In general, the county commissioners have no direct control of the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, beyond approving the flow of county money to the agency.
Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said she and other commissioners don’t support ending in-person visits. Andrews told Jacobs that video visitation would be a future option but he wasn’t ending in-person visitation.
The Inside-Outside Alliance protest within the commissioners chambers was mostly peaceful. Tension flared in the lobby after Rann Bar-On, a Duke math professor, was arrested after he started asking for a deputy’s badge number. Four more were members were arrested after they remained in the lobby as Maj. Paul Martin ordered them to leave multiple times.
The five people who were charged were released on a $1,500 unsecured bond later that night, Stapleton said.
Court dates were set for late April.