By Gary A. Harki
The jail’s online video visitation system provides convenience at a cost to connect inmates to their families, but it has raised concerns among civil liberties advocates who worry that the growing presence of such systems may lead to gouging or limitations on in-person visits.
The year-old system, called HomeWav, works like Skype. Prisoners log in over a secured computer network that allows the jail staff to monitor the video visits. The person on the other end of the video logs in and pays for the visit on a personal computer.
Each visit costs 50 cents a minute, and one-minute video messages can be sent for $1. HomeWav, which is based in Virginia Beach, started two years ago and has been installed in 27 jails in 16 states, said company President Gary Humphries. The firm installed the system in Portsmouth at no charge. HomeWav grosses about $1,400 a month from the city, and the Portsmouth Sheriff’s Department gets about $1,000 a month.
Portsmouth is his only local contract, though Humphries said he is responding to a Virginia Beach request for proposals.
At all of its sites combined, HomeWav is averaging about 50,000 minutes a month. In Portsmouth, the inmates who have signed up for the service have logged an average of 20 minutes per month each, Humphries said. He said he didn’t know exactly how many minutes each inmate who has signed up for the system has used it because HomeWav tracks only total minutes.
Carl Phillips, who is serving a six-month sentence on drug-possession charges, said he uses the system up to an hour a day.
“I’ve got to talk to my wife and kids and handle my business,” he said.
Other inmates ask him about it, but he said he is one of the few people on his floor of the jail who use it.