On their way to Des Moines for a shopping excursion last week, Lori Chickering and her daughter decided to sneak in a surprise visit to her son, who’s being held in the Polk County Jail.
Unlike some jails, the Chickerings didn’t have to worry about restrictions like no-visitation days for certain cell blocks or whether the visitation space was occupied. Instead, they each got in a quick conversation using a video system the new Polk County Jail debuted when it opened in 2008.
The system, which uses video screen kiosks in the lobby and inmate cell blocks, allows up to 36 inmate visits to occur at a time without the need for background checks or coordinated schedules. It has saved staff time, improved safety and allowed for more visits with fewer restrictions, officials say.
Those benefits have persuaded a growing number of Iowa counties to install similar systems or consider doing so — including Johnson and Linn counties.
“It’s very popular,” said Lt. Kevin Bell, who’s been working with the system in the Johnson County Jail since it debuted there in January. “It’s saved so much staff time.”
Instead of being escorted to a secured room where phones sit behind a wall of Plexiglas, inmates now experience visits from their cell blocks. Visitors simply sign in and receive a time to be at a video kiosk – usually within minutes of their arrival.
They typically get 20 minutes to chat with an inmate over a phone attached to a video screen.
Because deputies no longer have to escort inmates out of their cell blocks, the visitation process is safer and easier to coordinate for both inmates and guests. The video visitation system also has allowed some counties to expand their visitation hours.
In Johnson County, for example, inmates previously were only allowed visits on specific days, depending on where their name fell in the alphabet. Now visits are allowed every day except Sunday, although each inmate still is limited to two visits a week.
“But now the days don’t matter,” Bell said.
Polk County has 36 video visitation kiosks in its lobby and four kiosks in most of its 19 inmate housing units. Johnson County, because it’s much smaller, has four kiosks for visitors — including one that’s handicap accessible — and one kiosk in each of its eight cell blocks.
Each kiosk in Johnson County costs about $3,500, and Bell said they were paid for by inmates through the collect-call system. When they put money toward making a phone call, Bell said, a percentage went toward the video visitation system.
“It did not cost the taxpayers anything,” he said.
Polk County spent $629,650 to install its extensive system, and Polk County sheriff’s Sgt. Jana Abens said it requires some maintenance, but not much.
In addition to making visits safer and more efficient, video visitation kiosks cut down abuses of the system, Abens said. In the past, some people would try to stay longer than the allotted 20 minutes. Now, the call automatically ends when time is up.
“Now, there is no taking time away from other people,” she said.
Also, conversations now can be easily recorded through the video visitation systems — something that investigators or county attorneys occasionally request. Aside from the possible recording, Abens said, visitors mostly are left to chat in private with their inmates.
“The visits are not closely monitored,” she said.
Before Polk County instituted its video visitation system, visitors could be turned away for a variety of reasons. People with a criminal history, for example, couldn’t come into the secure part of the jail where the visitations were held.
“In the previous building, people coming in for a visitation had to be approved through a background check,” Abens said. “Now we don’t deny as many applications to visit inmates because they just come in to the public lobby area.”
Feedback to the visitation change in Polk County was mixed at first, Abens said. Some guests weren’t happy because they felt the visits were less personal.
“But once they learned the process, how much more quickly we are able to process visits and how more people can make visits, they are happier with the new system,” she said. “It even took some time for our employees to get used to it ... but now it’s a smooth process.”
Weighing the options
The Linn County Jail currently uses the more-traditional approach to inmate visits — guests sit behind glass to chat with inmates. Because the jail has 400-plus inmates, Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said, visits can take up a lot of staff time.
“It takes a lot of manpower for staff to log people in and then take people to the room,” Gardner said. “And then it takes time for the visitation process to occur. We would like to just keep people in their cells.”
That’s why Linn County is considering installing a video visitation system like the ones in Johnson and Polk counties, Gardner said. But he isn’t in a hurry and wants other counties to try the systems first.
“I don’t want to jump into anything too soon,” Gardner said. “We want them to tell us the shortcomings and the benefits to the different systems that are out there.”
The system Linn County is considering most strongly is similar to the ones in Johnson and Polk counties, in that it requires people to come to the jail to visit inmates. But, Gardner said, some of the new systems make it possible for people to visit inmates from outside the jail – like from a home computer.
The system could double the number of visitors able to stop in at any one time, Gardner said. He also is interested in taking it one step further by using the video visitation kiosks to expedite inmate commissary requests and conversations with nurses or chaplains.