Hamilton County Jail takes the plunge into video visitation

Joe Fowler, Chief of Corrections, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and Chief Allen Branum speak about a new video kiosk that will be used for all visitation for inmates at the jail in downtown Chattanooga.

A row of squat cinder-block rooms line the first floor of the Hamilton County Jail, each individual booth split in two by a wall and a thick glass window.

For years, jail inmates have met with family, friends and other visitors in these booths, perched on metal stools screwed into the floor, talking through glass.

But not anymore.

Video visitation

At the jail › Open every day from 8 a.m.-2 p.m.; 4-6 p.m. › Free › Limited to two 30-minute sessions per week › Visitors must be age 14 or older From home › Available every day from 8 a.m.-2 p.m.; 4-10 p.m. › $15 per 30-minute session, whether or not the full time is used › Unlimited sessions with visitors of any age Source: Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office

Signup required

Anyone who wants to visit inmates must register at securustech.net/friends; or visit the Hamilton County Jail to register online in the lobbyYou must have: › Internet connection, computer and webcam› Valid email address› Government-issued photo IDSource: Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office

The jail switched from face-to-face visitation to video visitation last week, and from now on family and friends will visit inmates through video chats.

It's a move that officials hope will cut down on the manpower and scheduling difficulties that have plagued face-to-face visitation, while also opening up a potential source of revenue for Hamilton County.

"We think this is the wave of the future," Sheriff Jim Hammond said Monday.

The county contracted with private company Securus Technologies to install and run video visitation, awarding Securus the rights through 2019.

The video system gives visitors two options: they can visit through video kiosks on the first floor of the jail, or they can visit remotely, from any computer with a webcam and high-speed Internet.

The on-site option is free and limited to two 30-minute video sessions per week. Remote visits are unlimited, but cost $15 per 30-minute session.

Securus installed 54 video kiosks - payphone-sized computer consoles mounted to the wall - to allow inmates and visitors to conduct the video chats. Seven such kiosks are set up in the old visitation rooms, but the majority of the kiosks are installed in cells that house multiple inmates, allowing video chats without moving those inmates.

That will cut down on the labor-intensive process of bringing inmates downstairs for face-to-face interviews, Hammond said. Records show officials expect that change to result in $32,000 in annual savings.

"Essentially before they were visiting each other through glass anyway," Chief of Corrections Joe Fowler said. "So we're just changing the type of glass they're visiting through."

Although Securus estimates that installing the system and training the jail's staff cost about $418,000, Hamilton County is not paying up front for the new system, records show. Instead, the county agreed to give any earned revenue above $300,000 to Securus during the first and second years of the contract, and extended the county's contract with the company, which also handles the jail's inmate phone system.

The county will collect between 20 percent and 50 percent of revenue from the remote visitations each month, records show, depending on how much revenue is generated.

Hammond said he expects the program to break even, but emphasized the main goal is to make visitation easier for both jail staff and visitors.

"[With face-to-face visitation] it's hard to find parking down here, once you get in here you have to wait a long time, we've got a limited number of visitation booths, we have safety and security issues as far as bringing the prisoners down, we have lawyers who come for visits, sometimes we may have to cancel visitation," he said. "All that led us to take a look at the off-site video visitation."

From now on, only "privileged" and "legal" visits will be conducted face-to-face, according to the sheriff's office. The video sessions can be monitored and recorded, although attorneys will be able to meet with clients in private sessions, either through video or face-to-face.

Anyone who wishes to use the new system will need to register online first. Visitors also can register at a kiosk in the lobby of the jail.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.