Inmates at the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities no longer have face-to-face time with visitors — conversations now take place through a computerized system described as “Skype on steroids.”
On, Oct. 1, the regional jail in The Dalles launched its new communications network that is operated by Telmate, an Ontario-based telecom service provider.
“We are going to save on staff costs, increase the safety of employees and cut down on the amount of contraband that gets in here,” said Jim Weed, executive director of NORCOR.
He said by not having corrections deputies escorting inmates to and from the visitation center, the danger of an assault is lessened and manpower can be dedicated to other duties.
He said another major benefit of the new program is that as remote visits become more popular, there will be less contraband hidden on the premises by relatives and friends of inmates. He said the location of drugs or other forbidden items is transmitted during a conversation and then picked up while the inmate is performing maintenance of the grounds.
Although the expense for each remote visit of 30 minutes is $15 as opposed to $7.50 in the lobby of the jail, Weed still expects most people to take advantage of that option.
“Our prisoners come from all over the state, and beyond, so it will cost their families far less to visit from home than to drive here and probably end up purchasing a meal or two on the trip,” he said.
For a 14-day introductory period, starting Oct. 2, all inmates will be allowed one free remote visit per day to get up to speed on the new system.
NORCOR is jointly owned and operated by Hood River, Wasco, Gilliam and Sherman counties and also houses fugitives and illegal aliens arrested by federal authorities. The facility is currently set up to accommodate 140-150 adult and juvenile inmates and has a total of 70 staffers.
Although the methodology for visitation is now different, Weed said it doesn’t take away an opportunity for direct contact because that was allowed only in rare cases. In the past, the inmate sat on one side of a shatterproof glass wall and talked through a phone to the person on the other side.
He said Telmate has covered the cost of installing the new system and, in return, will be repaid with a share of the fees charged for communications.
“We couldn’t do this if we had to pay for it ourselves,” said Weed.
Phone calls of 15 minutes already cost inmates $2.50, a cost that goes to $2.65 if it is translated into another language and $4 if international.
Theresa Crim, a representative from Telmate who was at NORCOR fine-tuning equipment last week, said the fees involved with the phone lines will not change.
She said each inmate will be able to schedule one free 30-minute local visit per week via computer through the online program. An account is set up for every inmate and visitors have to register in the system to send messages, post photos or chat via a webcam. No pornography is allowed and all conversations, like the phone, are monitored and recorded by deputies, who can terminate them if discussions stray into forbidden territory, such as planning criminal activity.
“There aren’t any private conversations when you are in jail and we let all of our inmates know that,” said Weed.
A kiosk has been set up in NORCOR’s lobby where friends and family members of someone serving time who do not have access to a computer can register for visits from two screens in a corner of the lobby. They can also, through use of a credit or debit card, deposit money into an account to cover visitation costs and bail, or go into a fund that allows the inmate to purchase snacks and hygiene items.
In the near future, Crim said the visitation system will be accessible by smartphones and iPads, not just through personal computers.
“We are just finishing the apps to do that,” she said.
Due to the convenience of the system, Weed said visiting times have been extended from the one hour offered two days per week to 5 a.m. to midnight every day except Wednesday. To accommodate transports between facilities that happen on Wednesday, inmates have to wait until 6 p.m. to visit but can do so until midnight.
Computers that will soon be outfitted with facial recognition software are set up in each cell. Within a short period of time, inmates will also be able to access an online law library for 10 cents per minute. For that same price, they can pursue their GED, get support to overcome an addiction or play a limited number of games. Any external website that is made available will have all of the links “scrubbed” so the inmate cannot find a backdoor way to get around the system, said Crim.
“Before long, the inmates will also be able to file grievances through the system so that process will go paperless, which also saves on staff time and resources,” said Crim.
She said the half hour given for the visit begins at the scheduled minute and shuts down on the 30 mark so inmates need to be logged in and waiting to take advantage of their full time.
Weed doesn’t envision many problems with vandalism to the computers because communication with the outside world is really all that inmates have to look forward to. During a vandalism spree a couple of years ago, he had televisions installed in each cell block out of the fund to enhance the quality of life for inmates. Whenever something was damaged, corrections deputies took away the privilege of watching TV for a period of time determined by the extent of the problem.
“Once we started doing that, vandalism was almost eliminated,” said Weed.
Computers used by multiple people are set up to prioritize visiting time. An alert pops up on the screen to let the user know that a visit is pending and that person must then shut down the program or be automatically logged out.
Crim said studies within the justice system have shown that an inmate who maintains good outside relationships is less likely to reoffend when released from jail. So an easily accessible communication system inside the facility plays a role in protecting society beyond the walls.
Weed became interested in having the new network installed three years ago when budget cutbacks necessitated a reduction in the workforce. Either the costs involved or questions about the vendor made him hesitate before moving forward and he finally shelved the idea.
“The industry began to grow and mature and it finally seemed like the right time to send out a request for proposals,” he said. “We had several vendors respond but when I looked at the product, Telmate had a record of making it work.”
Telmate currently provides secure services to around 200 facilities in 41 U.S. states and Canada, including Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, Montana Department of Corrections prisons, and all correctional facilities in Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces. Within Oregon, Telmate is also working with Baker, Curry, Coos, Deschutes, Malheur, Clackamas, Marion, Tillamook and Washington counties and will soon begin services in Clackamas County.
Crim said a technician is assigned to every facility that operates with Telmate’s system and is dispatched within four hours of receiving a call for assistance. The exception to that rule is that technicians don’t hit the road until morning if a call for help comes in during the night. For more information on the new visiting system at NORCOR, or to sign up for a visit, go to www.gettingout.com.