Blount County jail officials are in talks to eliminate face-to-face visitation in favor of video conference calls.

In doing so, Blount County would join the growing majority of Tennessee county jails that have done away with glass visiting panes in favor of digital screens — and sometimes met controversy as a result.

Counties often collect revenue from commissions on use of the technology, which is similar to Skype or FaceTime.

Deputy Chief Chris Cantrell, who oversees the jail, said the proposal is still conceptual at this point, but the hope is to have a service implemented before summer. It would replace face-to-face visitation, he said.

Blount County Sheriff James Berrong said in a statement to The Daily Times that video visitation will “substantially decrease the risk to everyone inside the facility.”

He said the ratio of corrections officers to inmates is normally 1-to-60 because of crowding.

The jail is certified for 350 beds, but its fluctuating inmate population has exceeded that for at least 12 years, reaching 600 at times in the last two years.

“Moving inmates to and from the jail visitation area is a serious security risk for both the inmate and the corrections officer,” Berrong wrote.

A similar concern over officer safety was raised in a 2014 study of the jail from the Institute for Law and Policy Planning, which noted that inmates are unsupervised during visitation because of “design and staff limitations.”

The study also recommended implementing video visitation: “With this technology, staff involvement is reduced while increasing control.”

But the switch has found opposition in some places where it has been implemented.

In Knox County, Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones banned in-person jail visits in April 2014 and replaced them with messenger tablets, citing safety and contraband concerns.

Backlash came in the form of Face to Face Knox, a campaign demanding the return of in-person visitation, with advocates having become a regular presence at Knox County Commission meetings in recent months.

The group organized a rally in protest of the policy in January in downtown Knoxville, where they were joined by the Knoxville NAACP and the No Exceptions Prison Collective, a statewide advocacy group pushing for improved prison and jail conditions.

The group says data does not reflect a change in contraband rates at the Knox County Jail, and that violence actually increased — while the county collected more money.

More than 600 jails across the country have implemented some form of video visitation, and most have eliminated or scaled back in-person visitation, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, which is critical of the practice.

Providers of video visitation services typically charge money for the service. While on-site kiosks for video calls are usually free, the companies providing the system generally offer a paid off-site video-calling service too.

The set-up is similar to phone services for inmates in jail, which are billed through a third-party vendor.

In Blount County, the money often does not come out of inmates’ pockets — the jail has no work program — but from family members like Amy George, whose fiance is in jail.

“It’s so expensive,” she said, explaining that she pays roughly $25 after taxes for three, 15-minute phone calls.

The county collects 60 percent of billable revenue generated from the phone fees, as detailed in a 2017 services agreement with City Tele Coin, the jail’s phone provider.

As a result, the county earned a cut of $242,092 from the fiscal year that ended in June 2017.

City Tele Coin among vendors considered

City Tele Coin — the Louisiana-based company that currently provides phone services to inmates — recently rolled out its own video visitation technology.

“We’re looking to move to that,” Cantrell said of the tablets offered by City Tele Coin.

The owner of City Tele Coin, Gerald Juneau, donated $1,500 to Blount County Sheriff James Berrong’s re-election campaign in April 2017.

“Jerry Juneau is a longtime friend and he has supported me throughout the years, as he has many others,” Berrong said in a statement. “Many individuals contributed to my campaign because they like what my deputies and I are doing in our community to keep our citizens safe.”

He added that the county’s purchasing office handles bids of this nature. “Ultimately, they make the final decision as to which company is awarded the contract.”

Other vendors are being explored as well, Cantrell said, including Vendengine, which provides the equipment and services used by the jail’s commissary.

Cantrell said using City Tele Coin for video calls would cut down on confusion when families want to put money on an inmate’s account, rather than juggling a video call account and a phone call account.

Next to market leaders like Securus, City Tele Coin is among the smaller firms that supply phone services and video visitation for inmates.

The company launched its Tennessee branch in 2008, according to state filings. Blount County entered its first services agreement with the company a little over a year later.

Political contributions from the company and its owner have been scrutinized in the past.

In Rutherford County, where the jail contracted with City Tele Coin, the Daily News Journal reported that the company donated $1,500 in 2013 to the re-election campaign of then-Sheriff Robert Arnold, who at that time was under investigation by federal and state agencies. He was later convicted for illegally profiting from inmates at the county jail through the sale of electronic cigarettes from his JailCigs business.

According to a 2016 lawsuit filed against Arnold by a former employee, Virgil Gammon, who was let go of his duties at deputy chief in 2015, City Tele Coin provided shrimp for a re-election event for Arnold.

In another instance in Louisiana, the Public Service Commission, a state body regulating public utilities, found in 2013 that City Tele Coin and other inmate-calling services were collecting millions in illegal surcharge fees from inmates’ phone accounts.

Chairing the Public Service Commission was Eric Skrmetta, whose re-election campaign that year received $10,000 from Juneau and his wife, according to the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate. Additionally, City Tele Coin allowed Skrmetta to hold a fundraiser at the business’ location.

After City Tele Coin offered a $5,000 settlement for the case, Skrmetta made a motion to discuss the settlement in a closed executive session, prompting another commissioner, Foster Campbell, to accuse him of a conflict of interest.

The episode was covered by a number of regional media outlets. The situation was not unusual, however. A joint investigation by WVUE Fox 8 and The Times-Picayune found that two-thirds of campaign contributions to commissioners on the state’s Public Service Commission came from industries they regulate and from other interested parties.

Visitation important for re-entry

Visitation is an important predictor for successful re-entry into the community, according to a 2014 report from the Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections.

“Studies confirm that incarcerated individuals have better outcomes when they receive in-person visits from family members and supportive community members,” the agency wrote.

Video visitation would likely have significant benefits for inmates and society, it said, because the technology would allow inmates more opportunities to visit with family members, since they do not have to be physically present at the facility.

The agency argued, however, that video calls should not take the place of in-person visitation.

“Traditional, in-person visiting is a best practice that should continue in all correctional settings when possible,” the report said.

Blount County jail officials say video visitation services would help some inmates with family members that live far away, or who have mobility issues.

The jail hosts federal inmates, some of whom are from distant states.

“Not everyone can personally visit their incarcerated loved one on Christmas Day,” Berrong wrote in his statement. The technology would allow family members to “visit their loved one from their home computer or from a mobile device.”

He added, “It will also allow for more visits by more friends and family, and parents don’t have to worry about exposing their children to a jail environment.”

Ann Jacobs, the director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said eliminating in-person visitation could have developmental effects on the young children of jail inmates.

“Kids are used to cartoons, where they imagine someone in jail or prison is in a dungeon tied to a wall. They’re very scared,” she said. “It’s (important for them) to be able to touch their parent, to see that their parent is OK.”

Jacobs said the broader criminal justice system often throws barriers between parents and children, and that the damage done to children is lifelong.

“It’s not over when the mother is released,” she said. “People should be very cautious about removing face-to-face visits, especially for children.”

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