On Monday night, the Durham County Board of Commissioners clarified its position on plans to implement video visitations at the Durham County Detention Facility, after five people protesting that initiative were arrested at a commissioners’ meeting earlier this month.
Board chairwoman Wendy Jacobs opened the board’s regular meeting Monday with a statement on the issue, saying the board supports the pilot program that would launch video visitations at the jail this summer only in addition to in-person visitations.
“We believe that in-person visitation is important for inmates in the detention center awaiting trial and for their loved ones outside of the jail,” Jacobs said. “We believe having in-person visits with friends and family members can have a positive impact on the mental health and behavior of inmates and thus also on the well-being of detention center staff. … The Durham County Board of Commissioners supports the implementation of video visitation as an additional option for detainees and their family members but not as a replacement for in person visitation.”
Jacobs went on to say that the pilot program is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and that a contract for the system is between the Sheriff’s Office and a company called GTL. She said people should direct their concerns about video visitation to the Sheriff’s Office.
“We are not involved in this contract, nor are we an approving body for this contract or program,” she said. “The sheriff’s department has statutory authority for the operation of the detention center, not the
Durham County Board of Commissioners. We are responsible for approving the budget for the detention center.”
On March 13, Jacobs was just seconds into the annual State of the County address when protesters began reading letters from inmates about video visitation.
“I will remind you of the public charge. If you cannot refrain from interrupting the meeting, I’ll have to ask you to leave,” Jacobs said before calling a brief recess. Jacobs told the protesters their concerns could be heard during a public comment period at another meeting.
The five protesters arrested and charged were members of Inside-Outside Alliance, a group that advocates on behalf of Durham County inmates and their families. They were all released from jail that night, the group posted on Facebook.
You can watch a (very wiggly) video of the demonstration here:
Inside-Outside Alliance says it tried several times to have the issue of video visitations added to the agenda for the meeting but was unsuccessful.
“Anything short of face-to-face visitation cannot be called visitation at all!” Inside-Outside Alliance said in a Facebook post asking supporters to come to the March 13 meeting. “As if visitation through plexiglass was not alienating enough, this move will further separate and dehumanize the people held inside and their loved ones.”
Inside-Outside Alliance has raised concerns about whether the jail will eventually go to video visitations only after the pilot program. (Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews told CBS News that is “totally incorrect.”) At least initially, visitors will still have to go to the jail to video chat with an inmate.
Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Tamara Gibbs told The News & Observer that the move to video visitations is being made for “staffing and security reasons.” She said the service will be free.