Shatterproof glass during visitations with inmates will soon be a thing of the past at the Aiken County detention center, which is riding a wave of the future with a new video visitation system.
The county will make the switch next year from in-person visitation to video visits using a webcam system similar to Skype, which the Aiken County Council recently approved.
“It's basically Skype in a secure setting,” Capt. Nick Gallam said of the new system. “There's a market for the correctional environment. It's been around for years, but it's getting a little more streamlined and easier to implement.”
Securus Technologies, which operates the jail's phone system, will install the video system at no cost to the county. Visitors will sit at one of the video terminals in the lobby of the jail and, using a telephone handset, speak with an inmate, who will be seated at a video system in their housing unit. Both parties will see each other on a monitor.
Lexington and Darlington counties are in the process of installing the same system in their jails.
“It's just like your webcam on your computer – you talk back and forth,” Gallam said. “The big thing for us is, we're not having to take those visitors and introduce them into the facility. That's the key selling point for us.”
In addition to increasing security and decreasing contraband smuggled into the jail, Gallam said the video system simplifies the visitation process and cuts down on man-hours needed for that process.
Currently, inmates are assigned a weekly one-hour slot for visitation, which is dependent on their housing assignment in the facility.
“So, if you're in this bed and this housing unit, you're Saturday from 9 to 10,” Gallam said. “The thing is, we have over 300 prisoners, and we only have so many visitation rooms, so that was the best way we could do it at the time.”
With the video system, visitations can be conducted seven days a week, Gallam said. Visitors can schedule a one-hour appointment online or by calling the jail.
He added that friends and families can log in and visit an inmate from the comfort of their own home, as long as they have a computer, Internet and a webcam. There is a $20 fee for a 20-minute visit, which can be paid with a credit or debit card.
As part of the offer from Securus, the Solicitor's Office and Public Defender's Office will be provided with free “at home” visits.
Gallam said some people may object to the fee, but, in many cases, it's less than the money and time required to travel to and from the jail and go through the check-in progress. Right now, Securus will collect the entire fee, but the county would receive a portion if it decides to enter a contract with Securus.
“We're not under a contract with Securus, so if we don't like it, we tell them and they come and take the equipment and we're right where we started,” Gallam said.
The county has been looking at such a system for several years, and Gallam said the only “hangup” was funding. The cost of a similar system with another company was estimated around $177,000, and the county would be responsible for installing and maintaining the system.
With Securus, “it's their equipment. They take care of everything,” Gallam said. “If there's a technical issue and a unit goes down, they'll send a tech out, pull that unit and put a new one in.”
Aiken County Councilman Chuck Smith called the new system “progress.”
“It offers a capability we didn't have before,” he said. “It's certainly more safe and secure for our officers and the visiting public.”
Gallam said he expects criticism that the video system is too impersonal, but he doesn't see it as a valid complaint.
“Currently, they speak to their loved one through a piece of glass. There's no physical contact, so what's really the difference,” he said. “They'll actually be able to hear better (with the video system). The glass is porous on the sides, so it allows sound to travel through.”
The system is expected to go online in Aiken in March.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.