On Friday evening, Hydeah Williams stood outside the Durham County Detention Facility, trying to make out the face of her brother, Tyrik, behind the barred windows high above.
Around her, a small group of activists with the Inside-Outside Alliance protested the implementation of video visitation at the jail. Williams and her friends didn’t come here to march and hold signs, but they were swept up in the action anyway. They borrowed materials to make a poster reading “Is that Tyrik?” in red marker and a megaphone to call out his name.
The idea of visiting her brother via a screen didn’t cut it for Williams.
“There’s a lot of people in jail and prison, and we want to see them face-to-face,” she said. “And maybe hug them.”
In 2013, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office received a $73,898 grant from the U.S. Justice Department to, in part, implement video visitation at the jail. Eight video monitors have been installed in the back of the jail’s lobby. At first, people will have to go to the jail to utilize the system, but the program could eventually be expanded to remote visitation.
Initial plans were to launch a pilot program this summer, but Brian Jones, director of planning and development at the Sheriff’s Office, says a specific date hasn’t been chosen. The monitors were activated for training about two weeks ago, says spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs, but have been disabled until the program launches.
Sheriff Mike Andrews says video visitation will offer a safer alternative to moving inmates around the jail for visits, save money, and give inmates more opportunities to visit with loved ones. While Andrews says the main draw is the option of remote visits, the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t yet decided whether to offer that service.
“That kind of touched me, because we all have people we know who are handicapped or unable to come visit with a loved one,” Andrews says. He notes that his office is also looking at other ways to integrate technology, like giving tablets to inmates for email.
Critics, however, contend that the program is a thinly veiled move to eliminate in-person visits altogether and profit from incarceration by eventually charging visitors to use the service.
“What the sheriff is asking us to believe is just ridiculous,” says Greg Williams, with the Inside-Outside Alliance.
Skepticism over the program’s intentions stems from mistrust of the Sheriff’s Office, as well as the fact that, according to a 2015 report by the Prison Policy Institute, 74 percent of jails with video visitation have gone on to cut in-person visitation.
Gibbs calls the idea that this decision has been made before the pilot program has started “misinformation” and “propaganda.”
“As of today, right now, there are no plans to remove in-person visitation,” Gibbs says. “We might find that people like the convenience of video visitation. I think it’s unfair to come to a conclusion that we haven’t come to yet.”
The Durham Human Relations Commission earlier this year issued ten recommendations for the jail, including that it not shift to video-only visitation.
“We were told at that time that the Durham Detention Facility does plan to move to video visitation,” says HRC chairwoman Diane Standaert. “Nothing indicates that in-person visitation will remain.”
Critics have pointed to language on the Sheriff’s Office visitation site directing users to purchase extra visits and use an off-site visitation center downtown. Jones told the INDY this was “boilerplate language” used by the video visitation service. Following the INDY‘s inquiries, Jones contacted the vendor to have this wording removed or changed.
The service is provided by GTL, a “correctional technology company,” and Renovo, a software company owned by GTL that has provided phone services at the jail since 2015.
On its website, Renovo touts the program as a way to increase security, connect inmates with reentry programs, reduce recidivism, “and even generate revenue.” (Andrews says he has no plans to charge for on-site video visits.)
Studies do show that regular visits from loved ones reduce an inmate’s likelihood of reoffending. Activists, however, say that contact just isn’t the same via a screen.
“There’s a closeness there that there’s no way video can provide,” says IOA member Steve Lorenz.
Last month, Pew Charitable Trusts reported that some jurisdictions are reinstating in-person visits after facing pushback over high fees and poor video quality.
Privacy concerns have also been raised. According to Jones, video calls, like all communications not between attorneys and inmates, “is subject to monitoring.” Jones said a retention policy for video footage has not been finalized.
Wendy Jacobs, who chairs the Durham County Board of Commissioners, says Andrews has told the board he intends for video visitation to be “an option.”
“In-person visitation is very important to those who are in the detention center but also their family members, their children, their friendsand a video can’t replace that,” she says.
Amid protests over video visitation, the board has maintained that it does not have authority over the contract or operations at the jail. This is true, but commissioners nonetheless had the chance to weigh in.
In 2013, commissioners approved a budget amendment adding the Justice Department grant to the sheriff’s budget. Because county departments don’t have the authority to accept grants on their own, this action was required; the board could have voted it down. That amendment specified how the grant would be used.
Still, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow says the programwhich was on the consent agenda and passed with no discussionwas never presented for the board’s consideration, but commissioners have since urged Andrews to keep in-person visits. She says it would be problematic to withhold funding to ensure that happens.
“If we cut funding to the jail, that hurts the inmatesand it possibly compromises safety,” Reckhow says.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Remote Control.”