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January 4, 2003

Jail ready to debut visitation by video

From: Orlando Sentinel, FL - 04 Jan 2003

By Doris Bloodsworth | Sentinel Staff Writer

Visitation at the Orange County Jail is about to go virtual with the opening Monday of a $4.8 million center across from the 33rd Street complex.

Instead of sitting on the other side of thick glass at the jail, family and friends will communicate with inmates through a state-of-the-art video screen and phone at the Video Visitation Center at 3000 39th St.

The American Civil Liberties Union and some prisoner-rights groups have objected to similar systems in Brevard and Pinellas counties, saying it deprives inmates of the comfort of an in-person visit.

"It's atrocious," Peter Siegel of the nonprofit Florida Justice Institute of Miami said of video visitation. "There are guys who tell me that they refuse to go to non-contact visits. They think it's too demeaning. And for families who travel long distances, it's a disappointment not to have contact."

Attorneys, chaplains or others visiting inmates for professional reasons still will be allowed to visit in person, jail officials said.

Corrections officials say Orange County's system will provide more opportunities for visitation and do it under more secure conditions.

Nearly 55,000 inmates a year are booked into the jail.

"The biggest complaint in the past was the amount of time people would spend waiting," jail spokesman Sgt. Dana Edmondson said. "It was on a first-come, first-serve basis, and some people never got to visit."

Another drawback of the old system was that each of the jail's five facilities had different rules and visiting hours. The new visitation center will standardize visiting hours to 13 hours daily and provide scheduled appointments made 24 hours in advance.

Visitors call ahead for 45-minute time blocks. They show up 15 minutes ahead of their appointment, display picture identification and are brought in hourly as a group into the center and its 76 cubicles.

At the jail, inmates will use matching cubicles, or carrels. There also are ones on rollers that can be taken to inmates in the mental health and maximum-security units, reducing the need for transporting inmates, jail officials said.

Mike Davies, one of the jail's video and electronics experts, said the center could be the first in the world to use high-speed technology that provides real-time images.

"My wife is deaf, and it was important to me that the image was good enough so that inmates and family members who signed or read lips would be able to visit," Davies said.

Most inmates will be allowed three 45-minute sessions a week. The old rules varied but usually allowed two one-hour sessions. The center also will provide a central location where family and friends can drop off money or court clothes for the inmates.

Davies said that at other video-visitation centers he studied, officials reported visitations increased by 20 percent. The new center should handle any increases, he said.

Last year, daily visits at the Orange County Jail ranged from 65 to 456. The visitation center could accommodate nearly 1,000 visits daily and can be expanded if necessary.

For jail officials, the top advantages of the new center are increased security and control of contraband. Edmondson said other facilities using similar systems reported they all but eliminated the smuggling of drugs and weapons.

An incident in 1993 still serves as a reminder to Orange jail officers about how dangerous in-person visitation can be.

Three women smuggled a sledgehammer and a .45-caliber handgun past security at the jail in a foiled escape attempt. Three maximum-security inmates beat an officer, and one of the women used the sledgehammer to try to break the glass separating her from the men.

"Fortunately, we stopped them," Edmondson said. "But if she had used the gun to shoot through the glass, it could have ended up differently."

The first facilities using the new multimillion-dollar technology will be visitors of inmates in the Phoenix and Genesis facilities. Horizon inmates will begin Jan. 20, Main inmates on Feb. 3, and the Whitcomb women's facilities on Feb. 17.

"It's a win-win situation," Edmondson said. "It's infinitely better for the public, especially those with children, who can avoid the trauma and inconvenience of visiting at the jail. And for corrections officers, it will provide better safety."

© 2002