Video visits to maintain level of security at jail

Staff writerJanuary 27, 2013 

The days of talking to a loved one on a telephone while extending a hand to a plate glass window will be replaced at the Accountability and Restitution Center with video visitation.

“It’s pretty old-fashioned,” said Corrections Capt. George Eaton. “And the more you move inmates through a facility, the less security you have because of that movement.”

Video visitation is among several new digital procedures at Thurston County’s new jail, including an expansion to video court and an overall switch to paperless.

The kiosks will be located in each of the eight inmate housing unit common areas. Similar kiosks will be in the work release center where family can log on to see incarcerated loved ones.

Moving to digital means family can visit with inmates from home.

“The off-site visit will cost, but what visitors are finding out with the prices of gas, coming to the facility, standing in line, checking through the process and getting signed in to visit for 20 to 30 minutes — they are finding it’s in a lot of cases less expensive to just pay the cost of home,” Eaton said.

The number of visits allowed through the new video system, as well as the price, has yet to be set. Eaton said the goal would be to work out a contract with Telmate, an inmate communication company.

Video visitation systems already are being used in jails in neighboring counties.

The Kitsap County Jail started using the system a year ago. The push for the new system came in response to layoffs and budget cuts.

“We have suffered like a lot of public agencies have in the last several years,” said Sgt. Kevin Hall. “Some budgetary constraints required us to look at as many options as we could to reduce our budget.”

The Kitsap County jail installed a telephone system with the same company, Telmate, in 2007, which recorded each phone conversation made during the face-to-face visitations.

That program was replaced with Telmate’s video visitation system in December 2011.

“Like anything, when you turn on a new system or change anything in our environment, there are some challenges to overcome,” Hall said. “Working with Telmate has been a pretty smooth transition.”

The biggest issues involved educating inmates and the public. There are no longer face-to-face visitations, even if the visitor came directly to the jail to see the inmate. Instead, there are video kiosks at the jail.

The change meant more social visits for inmates in Kitsap County Jail.

Prior to video visitation, inmates were given one 30-minute social visit per week. Now, if someone comes down to the jail, they are given one free visit per week. Each additional 30-minute visit after that costs $7.50.

Visits from a computer at home cost $20, which opens up the opportunity for family and friends out of state to see the inmate.

“Folks still come to the facility to visit and that is primarily because the first one is free,” Hall said. “We do have several inmates … that have family out of state or in Eastern Washington that do frequently use or have used remote visiting.”

The kiosks would also provide a way for inmates to send letters via a secured email, read inmate handbooks, access commissary request forms and other inmate forms.

VIDEO COURT

Thurston County has already been using video for preliminary court appearances, enabling inmates and defense counsel to speak with judges directly from the jail.

With the new jail three miles away from the courthouse, more court hearings will be done via video to save on transportation costs, with the goal of increasing the safety of the public, the inmates and the corrections officers.

Exactly which hearings will be done via video are still up for discussion, but could include arraignment, change of plea, bail hearings and trial schedules, according to Andrew Toynbee, chief operations deputy in the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office.

“There are some (hearings) that can, some that cannot and some the court and stakeholders group with the court say that even though they can be done remotely, should not be done remotely,” Toynbee said. “At this point, I don’t believe the court will do any hearings in which a sanction, penalty or jail time is imposed unless the person is right there in the courtroom.”

The added distance also means the need for electronic paperwork.

During appearances, both the defendant, judge and representation sign various court orders and documents.

Instead of signing a printed copy, the new jail would have all paperwork signed with a digital signature.

“The system will electronically generate documents I can electronically sign and send off to the ARC,” Toynbee said. “They will review, electronically sign and have the judge review and sign.”

Kitsap County District Court has been using such digital means for paperwork for the past two and a half years, Hall said.

“The fewer transports we have outside the facility is the better world,” Hall said.

The transition from paper to electronic copies won’t be easy. While the programs are designed to streamline systems, getting used to new systems is expected to initially slow down workflow.

“We are used to the forms — we have it memorized with which boxes to check,” Toynbee said. “Having to navigate through computer screens and using a mouse and a keyboard; it’s a different environment. It just takes longer.”

Going paperless has been the long term goal for the County Clerk’s Office, especially after the layoff of nine employees after the recession hit in 2008.

“Handling the calendars we have at both offices is a huge workload,” said Betty Gould, Thurston County Clerk.

The county took the first steps began in 2009, using online calendars and a new program that lets the public to go online and search by case number to find the documents they wished to purchase, rather than driving down to the courthouse.

Instead of printing, the documents are emailed.

Clerks began filing documents electronically in 2010 with e-Filing. There were 26,001 documents filed that way in 2012 alone.

With the opening of the new jail, the clerk’s office has had to add more electronic goals to its already large list, such as the digital signature program for court orders.

“It’s something we all knew had to come, but it just wasn’t on the hit list yet,” Gould said. “It’s a huge process; some of those calendars go quickly and this is going to slow those calendars down.”

Chelsea Krotzer: 360-754-5476 ckrotzer@theolympian.com theolympian.com/thisjustin @chelseakrotzer

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