Visitations at the Effingham County Jail are undergoing a makeover almost as drastic as the one for the jail itself.
Starting Oct. 14, the jail will be using a video visitation system, and those wishing to make contact with an inmate will have to sign up for a 30-minute slot.
“In the new jail, we wanted to go with video visitation,” said Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie, “so you don’t have to move your inmates so much.”
Going live with the video visitation system next week in the current jail will allow the sheriff’s office to identify what the bugs in the system might be.
Visitors can select a 30-minute time slot, and they will have two such half-hour visits free each week. Additional visits will carry a charge, and if they have a computer and a Web cam at home, they can have video visits from home for an additional fee.
To sign up for the video visits, guests will need to obtain a personal identification number and sign in. That can be done at the video kiosk in the sheriff’s office lobby.
“They have to pick a date and time they want to visit,” the sheriff explained. “If somebody else has that time, they have to set another. So it’s a scheduled visit to begin with.”
Once a visitor logs in, a control room officer connects them to the room where the inmate is. The inmate picks up a handset, and the visit is conducted as each party looks at a video screen.
Control room officers also will be monitoring the video visits, so if there is any activity that is deemed out-of-bounds, they can stop the feed at any time. If that happens, the inmate’s visits also are suspended.
Jail Lt. Brian Barnes said the new system also will allow for longer visitation hours. Currently, visits are limited to 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. six days a week. Now, they will be able to make visits from 8 a.m.-8 p.m., seven days a week, once the system is up and running next week.
Barnes said there are many instances where an inmate’s spouse tries to come during a lunch break for a visit, but the jail isn’t open for visits at that time because the inmates are being fed lunch.
“That will make it convenient for people getting off work,” he said.
Visits now are limited to 20 minutes, and the waiting room often is packed with people waiting to get into one of the eight booths to conduct a visit.
“It’s always full,” Barnes said.
The sheriff said the jail has had visitors come from as far away as Indiana. Now, with a PIN, a Web cam and a computer, for a much smaller fee than what they may pay for gas, those long-distance visitors can see their loved one from home.
The jail also may look at extending the video visitation hours.
“Judging by how it goes and how we get used to it — all indications from other facilities is that it is going to be very, very smooth — we may look at extending that a little more,” he said.
There are three video visitation stations in the current jail, and the new jail will have six. Fees used to conduct those visits will offset the costs of the system.
“By doing this, we cut $400,000 off our jail costs,” McDuffie said. “And TelMate is telling us it’s going to save us $600,000 for not having to buy the equipment.”
The video visits also will alleviate manpower and safety issues, too, the sheriff explained.
The new system also cuts down on the number of inmates being moved around inside the jail and that means a safer, more secure facility, according to McDuffie.
“The main goal in the new jail is to not move an inmate at any time,” he said. “That cuts down on escape attempts, officer safety, there’s a ton of stuff that you can avoid in that new jail.”
The visitation supervisor also is responsible for fingerprinting and reviewing gun permits, and the new video visits will free up that officer. The new system also could cut down on the amount of contraband left by visitors for inmates.
Previously, visitors had a room with eight handsets, and the small room and many voices made for an uncomfortable situation, the sheriff pointed out. The kiosks also enable visitors to put money in an inmate’s account for phone privileges and for commissary items.
By doing that, the jail administration doesn’t have to handle money. Inmates also can request medical assistance, file a grievance or ask for legal information at kiosks in their areas.
“It’s really working well so far,” Barnes said.