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Washoe County, Nevada Institutes Web-Based Jail Visits for a Fee

On August 1, 2010, the Washoe County Sheriff's Office began a pilot program of web-based jail visitation. Two years later, the web-based visitation had grown to encompass about two-fifths of all visits.

In 2010, a local company approached the sheriff's office and asked them to permit a pilot test of its newly-developed web-based visitation software and hardware at the jail. The company offered to cover all start-up costs. The offer of free service was irresistible. But the free offer did not extend to the visitors, who must pay $9.00 per half-hour visit.

The sheriff's office sees the program as a huge success. They have fewer civilians present in the jail and, since the visitation stations are located in the prisoners' housing areas, they have less prisoner movement to deal with as well. This improves security and saves staff time.

The prisoners and visitors undoubtedly reap some benefits from the system as well. They can get visits from people physically unable to come to the jail, they can visit their children without exposing them directly to a jail environment and visitation hours have been expanded, making it easier on busy visitors.

There is a downside as well. Although jails typically do not allow contact visitation and do not have refreshments for visitors to purchase for themselves and the prisoner they are visiting, web-based visitation eliminates any possibility of breaking bread with a loved one. It also reduces the immediacy of physical presence and prevents any possibility of physical contact.

Another downside is the monitoring. Whereas physical visitation is typically not monitored, telephone and video visitation is almost always monitored and recorded. In an article about the web-based visitation, the sheriff's department even bragged that the "system has become a helpful investigative tool used by different agencies without our county. We have provided detectives with access to the scheduling system and our recording repository, which has proven to be a highly effective resource for them. We routinely provide copies of visits or visit information to other criminal justice agencies, including our own District Attorney's Office." Needless to say, it raises privacy concerns when a jail prisoner's explanation to a loved one of what has happened to him or her becomes fodder for the prosecution.

There is also the question of excess profits. The sheriff's office article doesn't mention receiving a portion of the profits, but it does say that some unnamed percentage of the profits are used to benefit the prisoners, making it clear that they are getting a piece of the action.' Clearly, it cannot cost anywhere close to 300 a minute to provide this Internet service. At around 3,000 visits per month, converting all visits to web-based visitation would yield annual fees of $324,000. Even at the current rate of around 1,100 web-based visits a month, the annual visit fees are close to $118,000. More transparency about the finances of this operation is called for.

Source: National Jail Exchange

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