For Umar Muhammad, visits from his mother while he was in a county jail were a lifeline that helped him get through days, weeks and months in a cell.
“All I had was my mother coming to see me,” he said.
But when he was in the Alamance County jail in 2008 for five months as his case wound through the courts those visits were confined to a telephone and small screen.
“I don’t think there is much more you can take from a prisoner after you take his contact with his loved ones,” said Muhammad, who later served five years and three months in a state prison – where face-to-face visits with his mother resumed – after pleading guilty to a robbery with dangerous weapon charge.
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“People need these physical visitations to make them still feel like they are human,” said Muhammad, now a community organizer with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Once you start giving us these video visitations, there is nothing left to look forward to besides the cage.”
Durham County jail detainees will soon face a similar situation as the Sheriff’s Office moves to video visitation, a service increasing across the state and nation as a way to enhance safety and save money on staffing.
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs said contractors hope to have the system installed by the summer.
Shelving that plan is one of 10 recommendations recently endorsed by the Durham Human Relations Commission.
The 15-member board appointed by the City Council investigated jail concerns raised by community members, including the inmate advocacy group Inside-Outside Alliance. Its recommendations also include creating a civilian review board over the jail, increasing mental health services and eliminating the cash bail system for low-level offenses. Next steps include presenting the recommendations to the City Council and the county commissioners.
The Human Relations Commission report raises concerns about Durham County profiting from video visitation and the elimination of face-to-face visits.
The Sheriff’s Office is implementing video visitation “for staffing and security reasons,” Gibbs wrote in an email.
Under the current system, visitors take elevators to the visitation area, where they talk with inmates through Plexiglas. Video visitation eliminates the need for guards to escort inmates there.
“Staffing is always a priority, especially when the facility has a significant number of vacancies,” Gibbs wrote. “We lose just as many detention officers as we gain each year. It’s a very complex job.”
When the jail shifts to video visitation, visitors would use kiosks in the lobby, Gibbs said. The service would be free.
Bernadette Rabuy, senior policy analyst with the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, said more county jails are moving toward video visitation, while state and federal prisons are offering both in-person and video options.
There are two options, she said. In the first, a person goes to the facility and communicates with an inmate via a screen. In the second, a person can use his or her own computer or mobile device. The latter typically costs up to a $1.50 per minute.
The Sheriff’s Office hasn’t decided whether to offer remote visits or charge for them, Gibbs wrote.
“The Sheriff’s Office is always looking for ways to make the process easier, especially for people who may find it difficult to physically visit the facility (e.g. elderly, visits scheduled during inclement weather, etc.),” Gibbs wrote.
While remote visitation can be convenient, taking away in-person visits puts a distance between detainees and their family members and children, Rabuy said. Sometimes the screen quality and audio is poor, she added.
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, said he didn’t know how many of the state’s roughly 90 county jails have video visitation.
Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office moved to on-site video visitation last year, according to its website.
Wake County has been using video visitation since 2001, said David L. Goodwin, the county’s general services administrator. The county started offering the on-site video service at a jail annex in 2001 and expanded it to all detention facilities in 2005.
The service eliminated the need to take inmates out of their pods and the related security and safety risks. The system also allows inmates to appear by video in some court proceedings. Goodwin said the video process has saved money but he didn’t know how much.
Questions about video visitation
How much will it cost?
About $90,000, but the effort will be covered by a federal grant and a technology stipend from GTL, the jail’s telephone service provider. There may eventually be a local financial impact if costs exceed what those funds allow.
How large will the monitors be?
Detainees’ monitors will be at least 10 inches and visitors’ could be up to 17 inches.
How many people visit the jail?
In 2015, 29,770 relatives and friends visited the jail compared to 15,201 in 2016. Gibbs linked the decrease to a scheduling change and fewer slots available for visitors. In 2015, there were 7,706 professional visitors, such as attorneys, compared to 7,045 in 2016.
Source: Durham County Sheriff’s Office