Smile – the Aiken County detention center has added a few more cameras to its facility, which are now the only way to visit with inmates.
Aiken County Council approved the video visitation system in late 2012. Technicians have been installing and running tests on the new system, which went online in early February. Visitations at the jail have gone exclusively to video.
The system includes 16 touch-screen kiosks. Visitors sit at one of the video terminals in the lobby of the jail and, using a telephone handset, speak with an inmate, who is seated at a video system in their housing unit. Both parties will see each other on a webcam system, similar to Skype.
Capt. Nick Gallam, jail administrator, said the new system makes the jail more secure by not having to introduce visitors into the facility. In the old visitation method, a visitor would have to go through security and up the stairs to a visitation room, where they would talk with the inmate through a piece of glass.
“That's probably our highest-risk area of escapes,” Lt. Jason Todd said, adding that visitors could smuggle in items used to cut holes in the windows. “We've never had an issue with it, but that was always my fear.”
The video visitation system also cuts down on the number of man-hours required to escort visitors to and from the visitation areas.
“Of course, there's some drawbacks from people wanting to see their loved ones face-to-face,” Gallam said.
“There's been a lot of people that have enjoyed it because they get to visit more and it's more convenient. It's a mixed reaction.”
In the old method, an inmate would have only a one-hour slot for visitation each week, and that slot was dependent on their housing facility assignment. Visitation could also only be held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. With the new system, visitations can be held seven days a week.
The visitations are scheduled in 30-minute sessions and can be scheduled by either going online or calling the detention center. Inmates are limited to two 30-minute visitations with someone in the lobby per week. A timer on the touch-screen counts back from 30 minutes so the user knows how much time remains.
Friends and families can also log in and visit an inmate from the comfort of their own home, office or anywhere with a computer, Internet connection and a webcam. There is a $20 fee for a 20-minute visit, which can be paid with a credit or debit card.
Securus Technologies, which provided the system, will have a promotional offer for at-home visits through May 31, during which visitors are charged only $5 for 20 minutes and $10 for 40 minutes.
The fee applies only to at-home visitation; there is no cost to have a video visitation from the detention center lobby. Gallam said there's been some negativity associated with the fee.
“That's how the company makes their money,” he said. “The detention center and the Sheriff's Office get no part of that profit; that goes to the third-party vendor.”
Gallam noted the entire system was provided and installed at no cost to Aiken County taxpayers by Securus, which will also provide free software upgrades, Internet service and lifetime on-site service and maintenance on the system. The system has had its glitches getting off the ground, but things are running smoothly now.
Todd said a woman scheduled a visitation with an inmate at 8:30 a.m. one day this week, but that inmate was sent to the courthouse at that time.
“Once she got here, he was already gone, so she missed that visit,” he said, adding that she was only in town for the day. “We were able to go in and administratively assist that with overriding the system and getting her rescheduled for another visit.”
Ruth Hood used the video visitation in the lobby on Thursday. While it worked well, she said she preferred the old method.
“The visit was longer,” she said. “That was for a whole hour. This is only for 30 minutes.”
Lillie Hallman, of Salley, has used it several times since it rolled out.
“It works pretty good,” she said. “At first, they had to get the kinks out of it like everything else.”
The detention center is located at 435 Wire Road in Aiken. Anyone wishing to participate in video visitation can go to www.Securustech.net/VideoVisitation to schedule and reserve the next on-site or at-home visit. Visits can also be scheduled in the detention center lobby.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.