Durham County

When video visits will come to the Durham County jail, and what it means for inmates

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews discusses old grates in jail cells which were being replaced with “suicide-proof” grates in a wing of the Durham County jail in this June 6, 2016 file photo.
Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews discusses old grates in jail cells which were being replaced with “suicide-proof” grates in a wing of the Durham County jail in this June 6, 2016 file photo. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office says a controversial video visitation program, set to start Oct. 15, will allow for more communication with people in the jail.

“In addition to two in-person visits each week, visitors can choose to participate in a third visit with their loved one through a video screen and phone connection,” according to an announcement Friday.

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On Oct. 15, visitors will be able to speak with inmates via eight screens and a phone in the jail’s lobby.

“The connection in the facility is hardwired, so you get a nice clear picture, and it’s just like looking at a TV,” said Col. Anthony Prignano, who is in charge of the jail.

In 2016, the jail had about 30,742 visitors through 14,882 visits that were scheduled online or through a kiosk in the lobby that was made available that same year. Some scheduled visits included more than one visitor.

The online scheduling and kiosk are a couple of the steps that the Sheriff’s Office has taken over the past four years to move toward video visitation, which is funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant obtained in 2013.

The process has taken time as the Sheriff’s Office has researched vendors, technology and infrastructure to build the new system, Prignano said.

“This was something brand new for the facility,” he said.

In rolling out the free program, the Durham jail joins other facilities including those in Cumberland, Mecklenburg, Wilkes and Wake counties.

The Wake jail only allows people to visit the incarcerated via video, no longer allowing in-person visits. Critics of the program, which include the inmate advocacy group Inside-Outside Alliance, have been opposed to the video visitation coming to Durham because they fear it’s the first step toward ending in-person visits.

Sheriff Mike Andrews has said that, as long as he is sheriff, in-person visits will continue. Andrews, who will be up for re-election next year, and others say that video visitation gives families more time with loved ones, brings innovation to the jail, and reduces staff time and oversight in the visitation process.

“We’re still offering in-person visits,” Andrews said in the press release. “It’s also my responsibility to make sure that the detention facility offers professional, modern and courteous customer service. This technology offers detainees another way to connect with their families while they’re in custody.”

Inside-Outside Alliance member Greg Williams said Andrews’ guarantee is a victory for a community campaign for continued in-person visitations, which started after Sheriff’s Office statements that weren’t as clear when the program was first announced.

Williams, however, said there is nothing preventing Andrews from changing his mind or a successor deciding to take it away.

Williams wants county commissioners, who approve the Sheriff’s Office budget, to use their budgetary authority to offer a concrete guarantee that baseline in-person visitation will not go away.

“As long as video visitation exists without those institutional guarantees, that remains a serious danger,” Williams said.

County commissioners have said they don’t support the elimination of in-person visits.

Earlier this year, commissioners didn’t grant Andrews a raise. Commissioners expressed concern about a jail suicide, a deputy being charged with sex offenses and Andrew’s communication about bringing video visitation to the jail.

Prignano said they will monitor and review the video visitations number quarterly.

The Sheriff’s Office is also exploring whether to offer off-site video visitation through personal devices. The service is typically associated with a charge.

“We are trying to address the technology and see the cheapest way we can go with that if we go ahead,” Prignano said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

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