Five months pregnant and feeling it, Cierra Rice settled in for a long wait to visit her boyfriend in the King County Jail.
Rice hired a sitter to care for their 18-month-old son and had taken two bus transfers from her home in Renton to get to the downtown Seattle jail. When she arrived she was told the visitation rooms were full and she would have to wait.
Despite the hardship, Rice said face-to-face contact with Jasaan Dowell, who is in jail on drug charges, is important. She doesn’t bring their son because he gets fidgety in the concrete and glass visitation kiosk, and he doesn’t understand why he can’t hug his dad.
“Visiting through the glass is way more personal, but if I couldn’t be here I’d love it,” Rice said about the possibility of visiting via video.
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Rice and the thousands of others who visit jail inmates in Seattle and Kent each year will soon get their wish.
Securus Technologies of Dallas will pay $1 million to install a video visitation system for inmates inside the two King County jails, allowing those on the outside to visit with inmates online. Some of the systems are expected to be in place by the end of the summer, Interim Jail Director William Hayes said.
Securus will recoup the installation cost through system revenues during the first year it is in use, according to the county.
Hayes said the system is fairly simple to use: People outside the jail who are approved for visitations will receive free software from a telecommunications company that they can download on a home computer. That person can book a visitation appointment online and call the jail from the software-equipped computer.
“It’s similar to Skype, but it’s a more secure system,” Hayes said.
At the other end, inmates then will be able to visit online while seated in a visitation booth. The computers they will use will be specially reinforced screens, strong enough to handle a potentially irate inmate, Hayes said. The virtual visits will be scheduled in 25-minute blocks.
Each week, every inmate will be allowed one free 25-minute video call. Each additional video call will cost $12.95, Hayes said. He said the cost is reasonable, noting that some inmate video calls elsewhere can cost as much as $24.95.
As with telephone calls placed from the jail, video visits will be recorded and held for “investigative purposes” for 60 days after the call, jail staff members said. Face-to- face visitations are not recorded.
Video visits between inmates and their lawyers, mental-health experts or other “professional visits” will not be recorded, Hayes added.
Though the jail will still offer in-person visits, Hayes said, they eventually may be phased out.
Video visitations will save the county money by eliminating the extra staffing required for in-person visits.
As of earlier this month, there were more than 1,900 men and women housed in the two King County adult jails; about half of all inmates have in-person visits, Hayes said.
“We’ve had fights in the lobby,” Hayes said, recalling several times that an inmate’s wife and girlfriend both showed up for a visit.
He said video calls will make it easier for visitors who live outside King County to have a conversation with their loved ones.
Eventually, Hayes said, they hope to allow inmates and their loved ones to visit on smartphones, laptops, tablets and other mobile devices.
“You’ve got to maintain that family connection with families and friends,” said Hayes, who noted that inmates who maintain strong family ties are less likely to reoffend.
Video visitations have become common in jails and prisons across the nation. The state Department of Corrections allows for video visits; and SCORE, King County’s misdemeanor jail in Des Moines, already allows inmates to make video visits.
Video visitations will eventually be phased in at the King County Youth Services Center, the juvenile jail.
Peter Wagner, executive director of Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based research group that focuses on ending mass incarceration, said video visitations are being established at more and more corrections institutions and should be subject to oversight.
“Video visitation is here. It is not from the future, it is not from ‘The Jetsons,’ ” said Wagner, referring to the cartoon about a futuristic family. “Most jails have this or are actively looking at it.”
Wagner said video visitations are not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, but that’s something the Prison Policy Initiative wants changed.
He said inmates and their families have long been the target of predatory behavior by prisons, jails and technology companies that charge exorbitant rates for phone calls.
Last year, the Congressional Black Caucus pressed the FCC to cut the costs that inmates and their families pay for phone calls, which it said can be nearly $4 per call, with up to an additional 55 cents a minute for long-distance calls.
The caucus noted the high phone rates disproportionately impact African Americans and Hispanics who make up more than 60 percent of the incarcerated, according to The Associated Press.
In February, the FCC started regulating inmate telephone rates in an effort to end price-gouging.
The prison phone market, which brings in $1.2 billion annually, is dominated by two little-known phone companies: Global Tel-Link, based in Atlanta, and Securus Technologies, according to a story that ran in the Los Angeles Times last year.
King County Jail inmate Francisco Hayward, 29, of Seattle, said he would prefer online visits.
“It’d be awesome. These rooms [the visitation kiosks] get crowded and visitations get cut off because of overcrowding,” said Hayward, who is in jail for investigation of assault and violation of a no-contact order. “It would be easier for friends and family.”
But Kibby Thomas, of Federal Way, said that even if video visits were offered, she would still travel to the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent every week to see her boyfriend. She thinks the video visits will be “mechanical.”
The face-to-face visits are “one step closer to being touched,” she said in the lobby of the Kent jail on a recent afternoon, accompanied by her son Elia Rodriguez, 2, and daughter 6-year-old Ezette Fernandez.
“I think he realized a long time ago that being able to see his kids is important.”
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.