Eli Chung/News The Knox County Jail replaced personal in-person visitation with video visitation in February. The in-person visitation room is currently reserved for professional visits from legal assistance, treatment centers, clergy and the occasional classes. Family and friends are limited to video visitation.

MOUNT VERNON — Knox County Jail ceased the acceptance of physical personal mail addressed to inmates on Dec. 1. All personal mail will go through the Securus Digital Mail Center to be scanned for digital access on kiosks in jail dormitories.

The service is provided by Securus Technologies, a for-profit prison communication firm based in Texas and the largest inmate communications provider in America. Securus provides all of the inmate telecommunication services at Knox County Jail, from basic paid phone calls to video visitation.

The main motivation for implementing Securus’ digital mailing system is to reduce contraband, said Sheriff David Shaffer.

“We have had people… try to sneak stuff in the mail,” Shaffer said. He referenced a couple of ways in which controlled substance have been found in the mail, and said “This (digital mail center) will eliminate the potential of that happening.”

As inmates will no longer receive the physical mail, any mailer who wishes to have mail returned to them are asked to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope with the original mail.

If an inmate wishes to receive a print-out of any scanned mail, Sgt. William Shaffer said the jail has the capacity to do so upon the inmate’s release, but any mail access during incarceration is exclusively digital.

There are currently 11 kiosks accessible to approximately 90 inmates in Knox County Jail, according to Sgt. Shaffer. There is one kiosk in each dormitory, identical to the two kiosks visible in the lobby.

The upcoming digital mail system is just one of the newest changes to the county jail’s inmate communication procedures.

In February, the jail went online with Securus’ video visitation system, eliminating the traditional in-person visitation. This follows a controversial trend in correctional facilities across North America to replace in-person visitation with video visitation.

In the past months, the jail has also implemented the eMessaging system that allows family and friends to send messages electronically through Securus’ app for a fee; Securus’ standard fee in Ohio state facilities is $4.50 for 15 eMessages, $7.50 for 30 messages, and $12 for 60 messages.

The sheriff and sergeant said the overall reception to new technologies seemed to be positive and that family interactions are more frequent now with eMessaging as opposed to going through the mail system.

“The inmates seem to enjoy it, especially the family members,” said Sgt. Shaffer. “They have more contact now with their families, if they’re incarcerated, than they had in the past. We hope that helps them make better choices.”

Sgt. Shaffer’s hope is a documented benefit of interactions between inmates and loved ones. Various studies have found inmates’ association with family and friends while incarcerated to be beneficial and integral to the rehabilitation process.

A study published in 2005 in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice found that sustained contact with family while incarcerated improved ex-inmates’ post-release access to support in finding housing, jobs and reducing substance use — preventing recidivism such as reoffending and reconviction. Another report published in Justice Quarterly in 2011 found a 20 percent decrease in recidivism in inmates visited by their spouses compared to those with similar background and criminal history who were not visited.

American Bar Association’s Standards on Treatment of Prisoners states that facilities should promote regular visitation to enhance the likelihood of inmate reintegration.

Technologies such as the eMessaging system have notable benefits, such as faster and more frequent contact. But they also raise question as to whether digital solutions should be considered a sufficient replacement for the physical experience — is a digital image on the kiosk screen the same as a physical photo one could hold in their hands or put on the wall?

Among the more controversial practices is the trend to replace in-person visitation with video visitation.

Since Knox County Jail went online with its video visitation system, family and friends no longer see their incarcerated loved ones in person. Instead, visitors make video calls with inmates through two onsite kiosks in the jail’s lobby.

Prison and jail video visitation is a relatively new phenomenon, public data is limited to draw comparison with in-person visitation. But available records show mixed or ambivalent user reception.

In 2015, the Travis County Commissions Court in Texas found 91 percent of family members and friends still preferred in-person visitation, despite a 85 percent satisfaction rate with the video visitation system.

The high service fee is also a concern for friends and family members who are already absorbing the cost of their loved ones’ incarceration.

For video visitation at Knox County Jail, each family and friend can make one 20-minute free visitation from the jail’s lobby each week; every inmate can receive two 20-minute free visitations each week with two different visitors.

Remote visitation via a personal electronic device is not free. Sergeant Shaffer said that Knox County Jail currently enjoys a special offer lower than the standard rate since they have just implemented the system but could not recall the exact price.

Screenshots of the appointment page provided by an inmate’s relative show that remote video visitation goes for $12.99 per 20-minutes through Securus at Knox County Jail. The average rate at other Ohio county jails is $9.90 per 30-minute remote video visitation through JPay, a Securus subsidiary, according to the JPay website.

The cost translates to roughly 33 to 65 cents per minute for a service equivalent to free video calls on Skype or Facebook Messenger.

“I guess the trade-off there is that they don’t have to travel here,” said Sheriff Shaffer, regarding the remote video fee. “For someone who has friends and family that aren’t from this area, then it’d be a benefit.”

Sheriff Shaffer said that video visitation lifted the restriction on child visits. The jail used to only allow one child visit per month for each inmate. There is no such restriction with the video visitation system.

There is also no limit to how many people could be on the video call at a time—group visit is possible as long as one person has an appointment and is approved over the 24 hour pending period, according to Sergeant Shaffer.

Concerning people who are not tech savvy or do not have computer access, Sergeant Shaffer said “our public library has been very helpful in that. As far as I know they have not had to turn anyone away. That’s where we typically send people (for assistance).”

Despite the proposed convenience and the effort to transition people into video visitation, inmate advocacy groups and families express concern over the elimination of in-person visits and possible exploitation because of Securus’ monopoly of its service.

Securus has contracts with over 3400 agencies in North America, including at least 34 Ohio facilities through JPay.

Sheriff Shaffer and Sergeant Shaffer said that Knox County Jail approached Securus after learning about Securus’ technologies in other county jails. Sergeant Shaffer further cited the variety of Securus’ services as a reason why they chose the company.

“Everything builds off of each other. You can buy one component, and then as you progress, if you want to add on, everything is a seamless transition.” said Sergeant Shaffer, “I don’t have five vendors trying to make everything work in one package.”

For facilities like the Knox County Jail, bundled contracts come with obvious advantages. But for inmates’ families and friends, the monopoly and lack of competition could lead to higher rates and lower quality services.

In April, Securus withdrew an attempt merger with ICSolutions, the third largest company in the industry, after the Federal Communications Commission signaled that they would block the transaction to preserve existing competition in the industry.

“There’s always exception to every rule, and those are on a case by case basis,” Sgt. Shaffer said when asked about whether exceptions could be made for in-person visitation at the Knox County Jail. “If the staff here can’t help you get through what you need, we try to make accommodations… We’re not going to deny someone access to their family.”

For Sheriff Shaffer, the main reasons for video visitation are more efficient staffing and security. Inmates receive video calls in their dormitories, eliminating the security risks and staff needed to transport an inmate from their cell to the visitation room.

Sheriff Shaffer and Sergeant Shaffer estimated the current staff to inmate ratio to be 1 to 20. This figure reflects an national trend in prison and jail overpopulation and the number of correctional officers struggling to catch up.

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Eli Chung: 740-397-5333 or eli@mountvernonnews.com and on Twitter, @

 

 

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