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Researchers Evaluate the Future of Inmate Visitation

By: Cienna Madrid   Published 11:25 am / August 29, 2016

Giving inmates access to regular visitation times with friends and family is widely recognized as a vital tool for improving inmate behavior, both while incarcerated and upon release. It’s also important for maintaining relationships with these loved ones. But the Ada County Sheriff’s Office is trying something new: remote video visitation, whereby inmates use video kiosks located in the jail and their visitors use smartphones and computers, in lieu of in-person, glass partition visitations.

The sheriff’s office is a pioneer in the use of remote video visitation, having implemented the first such program in North America in 2010. With the system, inmates get two free video visits per week, after which it costs an inmate or their loved ones $9 per 30 minutes. But Boise State criminal justice researchers Danielle Murdoch and Laura King were interested in studying how these virtual visitations compared to the traditional, in-person visitations. Last year, the team approached the sheriff’s office and asked to evaluate the program.

The Ada County Sheriff’s Office welcomed their research. “We were excited to have an independent public service agency check out what we were doing,” said Patrick Orr, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

Over the course of a year, the criminal justice researchers, along with Caitlyn O’Very, a graduate student in the School of Public Service, conducted interviews with inmates, sheriff’s deputies and key stakeholders within Ada County Sheriff’s Office, disseminated surveys to inmates, and utilized secondary data to examine Ada County Jail’s remote video visitation system. Their findings showed that while inmates welcomed the flexibility of video visitations, they were no replacement for seeing a loved one in person.

“Something that immediately stood out: the data we gathered from the inmate interviews, versus what we gathered from the surveys administered to inmates, were very different,” explained King. “In our interviews, the inmates were a lot more positive about the video visitations as a way to keep in touch with their families but in the survey data they were more critical, more negative about video visitations.”

The team attributed the discrepancy to the fact that the surveys were anonymous while the interviews were not – meaning inmates likely felt more comfortable criticizing the system anonymously.

The inmates’ view of the system could be attributed to several factors: some families don’t have the technology for video visits (or the money to pay for extra visits), and visits were sometimes interrupted by faulty internet connections.

“While video visitation does help with accessibility for loved ones who live far from inmates, and decreases travel costs, our research shows the system has its downsides,” King said. “One of our recommendations was to install kiosks outside the secure portion of the jail, or somewhere in a public place, for people without internet and smartphones to utilize.”

Another factor the team researched: How do video visits impact inmate behavior, when some research has shown that in-person visitation can have a positive effect on inmate behavior?

“We examined disciplinary violation records and found  that while the number of violations increased over time, the severity of violations decreased,” King said. “There are a number of factors that could affect disciplinary violation records, but the data suggest the possibility that video visitation decreased the severity of violations.”

The researchers noted several program strengths in their evaluation, including a perceived improvement in institutional security, better access to family and friends who are hindered by distance from visiting, and avoidance of desensitizing children to the jail environment. There also were some weaknesses identified, including technological issues and the elimination of in-person, glass partition visits.

King explained that their survey data overwhelmingly showed that inmates wanted to retain the option of in-person, glass partition visits. However, the benefits of video visitation also must be considered. The Boise State team presented their findings to personnel at the sheriff’s office over the summer.

“Our inmates now have more access to their family and friends than ever before — no matter where those people live. The data shows inmates have more visits now than they did before 2010,” said Orr. “Kids are no longer filling our lobby and getting used to being in jail. Inmates interviewed by Boise State say their kids are more attentive during the video visits. Our facility is more secure and our staff doesn’t have to spend a ton of time every day moving inmates and the public around our facility.”

The report offered several recommendations for the remote video visitation system at Ada County Jail.