Video Visitation: Increased Security, Reduced Costs

Photos courtesy of HDR Inc.


Inmate visitation responsibilities can represent a significant percentage of operating costs, particularly in county jails where the close proximity of relatives and friends lends itself to the increased frequency of visitation. A heavy visitor load carries with it the high recurring cost of corrections personnel needed to facilitate and monitor the process.

Video visitation technology has the potential to maximize security during the visitation process, minimize the introduction of contraband, and limit the number of corrections personnel required to monitor the visitation process.

After years of fine-tuning equipment components and system configurations, a well-planned system can offer all of the above benefits to nearly any facility. Best of all, while its initial cost may be substantial, the cost savings that are possible will more than pay for the system over time.

Bringing the Visit to the Inmate

Whatcom County, Wash.

During a traditional visitation, the inmate is typically escorted from the housing unit to a special visitation room, where a face-to-face encounter behind a barrier takes place. This requires a corrections officer to accompany the inmate from the housing unit to the visitation area. It also demands that someone monitor the visit for its entire length, normally up to an hour. With a steady stream of visitors arriving during the course of the day, the demand placed on corrections staff is considerable.

In some video visitation configurations, the inmate is escorted to the video camera location, a practice that continues to require correctional officer intervention and its associated personnel costs. Although offering additional security by physically separating visitor from inmate and deterring contraband introduction, no personnel cost savings are realized.

However, by placing the video camera within the inmate housing unit or day room, the visit can be scheduled in advance and the inmate notified to be at the video station at an appointed date and time. It is the inmate’s responsibility to inform family members of the scheduled visitation and to be at the video booth at the appropriate time. If either party fails to show at the appointed time, that visitation opportunity is lost and another must be scheduled.

With the video booth situated in the day room, there is no need for the inmate to leave the security of the housing unit. An operator at a video control board activates the closed circuit video camera of visitor and inmate at the appropriate time, by way of a matrix switch. The visit may then proceed, with voice communication through a two-way telephone handset. The camera at the inmate station is in most cases protected behind a clear Plexiglas shield and an armored cable protects the telephone cord.

A countdown timer is visible to both parties. When the visit time is at an end, the cameras are automatically switched off, eliminating the opportunity for the inmate to provoke an incident by pleading for more time. There can be no arguing with a blank screen.

In an average county jail, two video stations per day room will be sufficient to meet the visitation needs of 20 to 32 inmates. Under standard conditions, the number of inmate stations required will be about double the number of visitor stations. A large county facility, housing approximately 3,500 inmates, would require about 70 to 90 inmate stations and 35 to 45 visitor stations. The number of stations can be scaled up or down, according to the size of the inmate population and the frequency of visitation. In state or federal prisons, where visitation can be much less frequent because of longer travel times, more inmates can be served per station. Corrections facilities can build in more video visitation capacity than needed at the time of installation, allowing for the easy activation of additional stations as future needs increase.

Keeping the Visitor Out of Secured Areas

The public side of visitation at the T.K. Davis Detention Center in Lee County, Ala. (above).  Video visitation units installed in inmate housing at the Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham, Wash. (below)

A major security benefit of video visitation is that visitor camera stations can be placed outside the confines of the jail facility. A visitor who does not enter the facility cannot introduce contraband to those areas. In some configurations, visitor stations are placed within the jail building because space previously utilized for traditional visitation is converted and reconfigured for video. Utilizing space within the detention building affords visitors who use the on-site amenities the opportunity to establish a conduit for contraband and compromise the security of the facility.

The Preferred Configuration

As the efficiency of video visitation is recognized, designers are encouraging agencies to put stations in dedicated structures, which keeps visitors away from secured areas and allows the designer to create a purpose-built setting. Instead of the traditional visitation setting, the decor of visitor stations can be more family-friendly and less intimidating to children. Facilities can utilize specially designed inmate-station backdrops to make the setting appear less institutional and stark. The video visitation building can assume the look of a family home. Video booths can feature several chairs for family visits and be wheelchair-accessible.

Another important benefit of a separate video visitation building is that of reduced operational costs. A video visitation unit, situated outside the secure facility, can be operated by civilian personnel. Employees not in contact with inmates do not require special corrections training and can be hired at a lower rate of pay than correctional personnel.

Is A Video Visit Really A Visit?

Critics have faulted video visits as sterile and impersonal. Yet, in traditional noncontact visits, a sheet of Plexiglas or steel mesh painted institutional green or gray divides the family members. The inmate may be in handcuffs and/or leg irons, depending on the inmate’s custody classification. Voice communication is achieved with a telephone handset, with clanging metal doors as a sound backdrop. Visitor and inmate cannot actually touch in any way, so it is a stretch to consider this type of encounter a personal visit. Critics of video visits must balance this reality against the improved ambiance achieved with today’s electronic systems, which can deliver scheduling capabilities and significant cost savings, while increasing operational security and lowering the threat of contraband introduction.

Robert Bosco, CPP, is a project manager and designer of security systems and countermeasures with training in industrial security management, electronic and physical security, security screening, biometric access control, intrusion detection, perimeter security, duress alarms and CCVE surveillance, and the application of government antiterrorism and force protection guidelines.

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