By Dave Forster
August 2, 2012
It’s not the newest social media craze, but it could be a big hit in the jailhouse: video chatting with inmates.
Such a service is about to go live at the Portsmouth City Jail under a deal between Sheriff Bill Watson and a Virginia Beach company. As early as next week, inmates will be able to use a computer to talk to a loved one via webcams for 50 cents a minute.
Proponents say it will be good for taxpayers and the incarcerated, and Portsmouth’s jail will be the first in Virginia to offer it, said Watson and his partner, HomeWAV. Other facilities are exploring it.
“We’re definitely going down that path,” said Ashley Lanteigne, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office.
Virginia Beach already has received demonstrations from HomeWAV and other potential providers, she said.
The service is touted as a cost-saver because it cuts down on the time it takes staff to transport and supervise inmates and their visitors during on-site meetings.
It also gives more people a chance to see a relative or friend who’s serving a sentence or waiting to make bail. Visitors to the Portsmouth City Jail must be at least 12. Others may be too old or frail to visit.
“They can talk to the children; they can talk to the elderly mother,” said Lt. Lee Cherry, a Portsmouth sheriff’s spokesman.
Paula Miller, a spokeswoman for the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office, said her agency is in the early stages of considering its own online video visitation system. But there are concerns, she said. Among them, deputies give up control over the person on the other end of the conversation.
Gary Humphries, the company’s founder and CEO, said visits can be terminated immediately if the online visitor does or says something inappropriate. The chats are recorded, he said.
Some jails already have done away with the traditional visitation rooms so often depicted in TV and movies, where inmates sit behind a glass partition and pick up a telephone to talk to their visitor. Norfolk and Virginia Beach allow visits by video only, with systems that still require both parties to be on-site.
The state’s Department of Corrections offers another kind of video visitation program. It partners with two nonprofits that have six locations in four cities, including Norfolk, where people can go to make a video visit with a prisoner. Those visits cost $15 for 30 minutes or $30 for an hour. The fees cover costs for the nonprofits, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections website.
Portsmouth’s Sheriff’s Office will get a portion of the proceeds of its new service. HomeWAV has provided 26 monitors and is covering the costs of installing and operating the system, Humphries said.
When the service begins, inmates will be able to place a call to the computer of an approved visitor. Most of the jail’s monitors will be open between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., compared with the current three-hour evening window for on-site visits, Cherry said.
Portsmouth is HomeWAV’s sixth contract, Humphries said. Its first partnership, with a locality in Kansas, has produced 5,471 calls and more than 55,000 minutes of video chats since it started in January, he said. That 100-inmate facility is less than a quarter of the size of Portsmouth’s City Jail.