By Claire Withycombe

The Bulletin

In 2013, the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office agreed to a “truly revolutionary piece of communications hardware”: video visitation for inmates.

The revolution was promised by Telmate, a company that provides telecommunications services to prisons and jails throughout Oregon and the country, in an amendment to a 2011 contract detailing the company’s phone services for the county jail.

Six video kiosks in the Deschutes County Work Center neighboring the jail soon replaced in-person visits. While family and friends can use the kiosks to visit with inmates over video for two free 30-minute visits per week, additional minutes and remote video visiting require payment, according to Deschutes County Sheriff’s Lt. Michael Gill.

Last week, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office delayed a similar plan to replace in-person visits with video visitation at two county jails. The news, broken by Portland-based magazine Street Roots in early January, had received a tepid welcome from the public.

Detractors find fault with visit systems that take the place of in-person contact. Video visitation can be expensive, technologically faulty and doesn’t necessarily reap the psychological benefits of in-person visiting for inmates and their families, according to a study released in late January by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and advocacy group.

Critics also question the commissions jails and prisons often receive from inmate telecommunications.

While Deschutes County Sheriff’s Capt. Shane Nelson, who oversees jail operations, said the county does not accept a commission for video visiting, the county does receive a 50 percent commission on gross revenue from both prepaid and collect telephone calls. All of the commission from paid telephone calls is directed to jail programs, including drug and alcohol support groups, parenting classes and training for food handler’s certification cards, according to Nelson and Gill.

The sheriff’s office is expected to collect about $35,000 in revenue from the telecommunications commissions by the end of the fiscal year, according to the sheriff’s Business Office Manager Jim Ross.

While the sheriff’s office does not accept a commission, Telmate collects revenue on additional and remote video visits to inmates at the jail.

After two free 30-minute video visits per week with an inmate at the Work Center, video visits cost 25 cents per minute — $7.50 for a 30-minute phone call. Inmates access the system from the kiosk in their dormitory area; family and friends can either use the work center’s kiosks or access video visitation remotely from a computer or mobile phone. The remote visitation service costs 33 cents per minute .

Prior to the video visitations, according to Gill and Nelson, people had to schedule visits ahead of time. The in-person visits required additional legwork to organize schedules and to transport and supervise inmates, Gill said.

On Jan. 28 , according to Gill, 62 people had scheduled video visits with inmates for that day. Inmates can use the system between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily, with breaks between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and between 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., whereas visiting hours were previously restricted to Saturdays and Sundays. A man waiting to visit a relative in the jail Jan. 28 via video at the Work Center said he could use the scheduling software to make an appointment for the next day.

“There is a huge savings and resource management piece,” said Nelson. “It also reduces the inmate movement. … The more movement you have of an inmate, it just increases your chances of something happening.”

“Why not just put scheduling on the computer so we can visit in person?” said Lynetta Hammons, who has used the service to visit with her son, who was released from the Deschutes County jail Jan. 23 after serving a 45-day sentence.

Hammons, who lives in Portland, stood outside the visiting area Friday, waiting for her son to report to Adult Parole & Probation upstairs. While she understood the safety concerns cited by the sheriff’s office, she found the visits “sort of detached.”

“All you see is this,” said Hammons, indicating from the shoulders up. “You can’t see if your spouse or your child is OK. … I want to be reassured that everything is the way it’s supposed to be.”

Video visiting can also have an effect on family members of those in jail or prison, especially children, according to Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University-Camden.

Adalist-Estrin pointed to a study released last week by the National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency providing assistance to correctional agencies. While video visitation can lower administrative costs and permit more frequent access, the study found, fees for visits can be expensive for many families, and video visits don’t necessarily reap the same benefits as in-person visits, which some studies have shown to reduce recidivism and disciplinary action.

Lack of in-person contact with a parent can contribute to extreme and prolonged stress on a child, which in turn can impede healthy brain development. “There is a lot of trauma and toxic stress associated with incarceration for children,” said Adalist-Estrin. “One of the ways we can mitigate that damage is meaningful contact with their incarcerated parent.”

Video visits that allow children to contact a parent from home, a comfortable and familiar environment, can alleviate some of the pain of separation, though in-person visiting is ideal, Adalist-Estrin said.

“Keeping kids connected to parents in any way we can is better than not,” said Adalist-Estrin. “If kids can video visit rather than no visit at all, it can help with some of the trauma and separation stress.”

Jail, by design, is a controlled environment. Many freedoms are restricted, others given up entirely. According to Nelson, those restrictions include when and how inmates have contact with the outside world.

“Jail’s not a convenience,” Nelson said.

Jail operators in Crook and Jefferson counties, which have much smaller facilities, say video visitation technology may be in their future, but don’t expect it any time soon.

“I think it does help the family actually, coming in,” said Crook County Sheriff’s Lt. Al Bond, who oversees the county’s 16-bed jail. “You can see the person face to face, and … the way we have it set up in the cubicles, it’s a little more private than being in the main jail cell where inmates are around you.”

Bond said until the county upgrades or replaces its facility, in-person visiting would remain. But he said he could see disadvantages in the practice from an administrative perspective.

“It does allow the opportunity for people to bring in contraband, and it is somewhat staff-intensive,” Bond said. “You have to log them in and log them out and check on credentials.”

According to Jefferson County Sheriff’s Capt. Tim Edwards, in-person visiting at the 160-bed jail will also likely continue.

“It would be nice to have down the road,” Edwards said of video visitation, which he said the jail doesn’t have the capacity for. For now, in-person visits are also beneficial “just because people are present. It’s not a contact visit, but they’re visible. But people can do things on the Internet we can’t control.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0376,