The Future of Video Visitation

The United States has the highest documented per capita rate of incarceration of any country in the world. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of June 30, 2007, American prisons and jails held 2,299,116 inmates and, at the start of 2008, more than one in 100 American adults were incarcerated. This population has quadrupled since 1980, particularly as a result of tougher mandated sentences that came from the war on drugs, along with three-strikes and truth-in-sentencing laws, and the criminalization of mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse. In 2006, states spent an estimated $2 billion on prison construction, three times the amount they were spending fifteen years earlier. The combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the Federal government for law enforcement and corrections total more than $200 billionannually. As population growth continues to drive the costs of running the nation’s correctional systems and with overcrowding at an all-time high, organizations are looking for new and better ways to manage the needs of inmate populations while maximizing resources during a time of ever-tightening budgets.

Historically, the corrections system has been driven by manpower. But now, technological advances are allowing organizations to break with that tradition by replacing manual operations with automated, technology-driven solutions. From touchscreen-interactive, inmate-initiated kiosks that handle money, provide legal information and order vending items, to software-centric video visitation solutions, technology has not only entered the building, it has secured a firm foothold.

On the whole, the advent of video visitation is arguably the single biggest milestone in the world of corrections operations to-date. While video visitation has been available in one form or another for the last decade, it is only recently that technology-based, software-centric advancements and enhancements (far beyond telephone boxes on a wall) have made it fiscally feasible for many correctional facilities to migrate or retrofit current, non-video-based systems to video, or plan for its integration in the future. (In discussing video visitation options, it’s important to differentiate between a video visitation “system” and a video visitation “solution.” Most video visitation systems are hardware-based, with rudimentary software programs that provide basic “push to connect” functionality — while a turnkey video visitation solution provides, in addition to hardware, software that allows organizations to easily schedule, automate, manage and report on their visitation procedures.)

Founded in 1968, Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, Virginia, is the oldest and largest regional government agency in the Fredericksburg area. In 2000, the jail moved from its original location in downtown Fredericksburg into a new, 264,000-square foot, state-of-the-art facility designed to meet the current and future corrections needs of the rapidly growing geographic area it serves. At the time of the move, Rappahannock had an average daily inmate count of 436. Between 2000 and 2006, Rappahannock’s inmate population increased consistently at the rate of approximately 100 per year, to the point that in 2006 the facility underwent a 109,000-square-foot expansion to add an additional 432 beds. Today, the jail has more than 1,000 inmates (a number that is projected to increase to 1,500 within the next two years), a staff of approximately 250 and an annual operating budget of $21 million. Rappahannock’s expansion included upgrading the security system, with the goal of minimizing staff levels in visitation areas without reducing the number of visitations inmates could receive. After researching options and costs, video visitation was chosen for its ability to streamline operations and costs by, in part, eliminating the need to transport inmates from housing unit to visitation areas.

In August of 2007, with the addition complete, Rappahannock deployed a turnkey video visitation solution that offers, among other features, an online scheduling module. Before implementing the new solution, inmates were escorted from their individual housing units to the visitation area, while visitors had to register in the lobby and also be escorted to the visitation area. With Rappahannocks’s new video visitation solution, visitation stations are located in each housing unit, which eliminates the need for transporting inmates outside of their housing unit. An online scheduling module gives the public the convenience, control (and responsibility) of being able to register for and schedule visits online, in advance. This greatly simplifies the overall process and creates a much safer, less chaotic and more controlled environment for both staff and the public. Corrections officers simply generate an inmate visitation schedule at the beginning of the day, and visitors no longer have to wait in clogged lobbies while their visits are processed on a first-come, first-served basis. Despite Rappahannock’s rapidly growing population, moving to video visitation has allowed the facility to efficiently provide every inmate with a minimum of one 45-minute visit per week.

Rappahannock experienced a complete return on investment within 12 months of implementing the new video visitation solution. (As a general comparison, implementation cost compares to one year’s average salary for one corrections officer.) Because organizations can easily schedule, automate, manage and report on their visitation procedures, human resources are freed-up for more productive tasks. This is where video visitation has the power to materially affect an organization’s ability to do more with less – maximizing dwindling budgets while improving operations. Technology-neutral software allows institutions to integrate a software-only solution with existing hardware, and can even be used to enhance traditional, non-video-based visitation processes. In this case, the software maximizes efficiency by allowing automated policy management, and visitation scheduling and tracking. This greatly increases the efficiency of a video visitation network regardless of technology, hardware manufacturer, size or network complexity. Organizations considering a move to video visitation should look for a solution with software features such as:

  • ✔ Web-based public scheduling, visitor registration and staff scheduling
  • ✔ Hardware automation (e.g. automatic station connection without staff involvement)
  • ✔ JMS/OMS integration (includes name, date of birth, booking number, gender, status, housing unit or POD; also tracks inmate moves and visitation status/restrictions)
  • ✔ Policy management/configurable parameters (e.g. privilege-based user levels, owner-defined visitation quotas, variable quotas, owner-defined scheduling times & schedule rotation flexibility)
  • ✔ Automatic conflict-checking (e.g. time availability for housing unit or POD, recording resources, visitor & inmate availability and restrictions/quotas, maximum number of visitors and age requirements, inmate- and visitor-specific restrictions)
  • ✔ Automatic cancellation (e.g. email and/or auto-dialer cancellation notification)
  • ✔ Viewing & interrupt (e.g. real-time viewing of visits, suspend & re-start, cancel & record visits, correctional officer interrupt)
  • ✔ Recording (e.g. audio only, audio/visual, audit trail, multiple levels of recording authority, automatic recordings)
  • ✔ Reporting & searches (e.g. statistical reports, corrections officer reports, audit trail)
  • ✔ Check-in application (e.g. displays upcoming visitations and associated visitors, assigns visitation station, flags minors, records notes for visitors, records visitation ID number

In the best-case scenario, video visitation promotes increased safety and increased productivity. By eliminating “first-come, first-served” issues, public traffic in a facility is reduced – as is the resulting potential for contraband. The greatly reduced need for inmate moves (and associated transportation costs) also maximizes efficiency. Video visitation has become a proven way for correctional facilities to do far more with less, all the while improving quality of life for inmates. Given the capabilities of today’s most sophisticated, software-centric solutions, it would seem that video visitation’s day has come.

About the Authors

Captain Scott Baird graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (where he majored in Criminology) in 1988, began his career at Rappahannock that same year, and has now been with the organization for more than 20 years. He is a member of the Virginia Association of Regional Jails and the Western Virginia Association of Regional Jails. A retired member of the Army National Guard, Baird is also a member of the Military Officers Association of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and The American Legion.

Timothy Eickhoff is Managing Partner of Renovo Software, and has worked in the video network management industry for more than a decade. Prior to co-founding Renovo Software, Eickhoff held executive sales and business development management positions with video network management, software and telephony companies. He holds a B.S. in Communications and Business from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire and is a member of the American Corrections Association.