ELLSWORTH — Want to visit your boyfriend who’s locked up? There’s an app for that.
The Hancock County Jail is changing the style of visitation for inmates and their loved ones from face-to-face through glass to a video system similar to Skyping.
Jail Administrator Tim Richardson and Sheriff Scott Kane proposed the system to the Hancock County Commissioners Tuesday.
The program will eliminate contact visits, which tie up manpower and increase the risk of contraband entering the jail, the officials said.
“This is securing the safety of the inmates and the population from possible contraband,” Richardson said. “When we have visits, it takes one officer to move inmates throughout the facility. That’s four days a week.”
The commissioners voted 2-1 to approve a five-year contract with Securus Technologies, which will run the program at no cost to the county.
County Commissioners Steve Joy and Antonio Blasi voted in favor of the move. Commissioner Percy “Joe” Brown abstained, stating that he “owns a bit” of Securus stock.
Securus serves 3,400 correctional facilities and more than 1.2 million inmates in 48 states, according to the company website.
“As the largest inmate communications provider, we help maintain relationships between inmates and their family and friends through easy-to-use inmate calling options and video visitation from anywhere using Apple or Android smartphones, tablets or PCs,” Securus states.
The Dallas-based company will outfit each Hancock County cell block with a phone and 10-inch video monitor for visits. The program could start as soon as April of 2017.
Family, friends and loved ones can download an app on their smartphones or use computers to connect with their inmate at the jail.
For “people who don’t have the technology, there will be a console in the jail lobby for them to use,” Richardson said.
The average cost of a video visit is around $6 for a 20-minute visit, Richardson said, “which is a lot cheaper than driving in here with gas.”
This is how the program works, according to a Securus brochure. Those planning to visit inmates will create a Securus account online, providing identification such as a driver’s license or passport.
Once approved by Securus, loved ones will log-in and schedule a visit with their inmates. The visits will be scheduled at a time when the inmate will be available.
If an inmate wants to make a call and has no money in his jail account, a family member can use a bank card to add money online.
Cost is an issue as well as the quality of video.
An organization called The Prison Policy Initiative has interviewed families that have used the video visiting systems across the United States. Families complained about cost and quality of the visit, including audio lags, pixilated screens and freezes due to poor Internet connections. Family members have complained that they can’t get a good sense of the well-being of their inmate from the screen.
“Video visitation can be expensive and the families of incarcerated people are some of the poorest families in the country,” the Initiative stated in a report on the video trend.
There are complaints that the video system doesn’t provide privacy. The institute reported that a D.C. woman and her young daughter were visiting with her partner via video when a fight broke out in the cell block. The 5-year-old girl saw the melee.
However, local inmates will get more visiting hours with the new system.
Currently, inmates are allowed visitors during a three-hour block on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays as well as for an hour on Wednesdays.
“This will be from roughly 8 a.m. until 8 or 9 at night,” Richardson said. The contract states the system must be available for 60 hours over seven days.
“I have talked to some of the inmates and they are excited about it,” Richardson said.
However, not everyone is excited.
“The more you do this sort of thing, the more you distance the person from things that are meaningful,” said former Maine legislator and current Blue Hill Selectman Jim Schatz. “From the perspective of treatment, it’s two steps back.”
While in the Legislature, Schatz served on the Maine Criminal Justice Committee. He is a member of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and has a master’s degree in correctional administration. Schatz worked in community treatment programs in Denver for several years.
Schatz characterized the takeover of video visits as “just bad criminal justice philosophy.”
“If you’re looking at keeping people integrated, the best contact is face-to-face,” Schatz said. “It’s one important element of rehabilitation because it reminds people more than a phone call or a Skype of what that person really is. Recidivism goes up without visits.”
“To say its just as good as human contact or direct contact — that’s foolish,” Schatz said. The more association inmates have with people outside the jail the better, he said.
To be sure, for families who live far from the jail or single parents with children to care for, the video system may be easier.
Securus, in a promotional video for its product, touted the potential for inmates to participate in events such as school concerts and bedtime stories with the video visitation.
Schatz said both types of visits — contact and video — should be made available.
There is no charge to Hancock County for installation of the system or its maintenance. The jail will receive $1,100 a month, which will be put into an inmate benefit fund. The remaining revenue goes to Securus.
Securus Technologies, in 2014, was valued at $950 million, according to a report in the Huffington Post. The company saw profit of $114.6 million in 2014. Not all of that is generated from video visits. Securus already operates phone systems in jails and prisons, including Hancock County.
Telephone visits will still be an option for those who don’t want the video option or don’t have the means.
Other county jails are already using the video system. Richardson said the jails include Cumberland County, Two-Bridges and Somerset County. Androscoggin County is about to sign a contract, he said.