Inmate Visits Go Digital In Maricopa County

By Stina Sieg
Published: Monday, November 24, 2014 - 7:42am
Updated: Monday, November 24, 2014 - 2:51pm
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(Photo by Stina Sieg/KJZZ)
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is clearly excited about the new online video chat system at county jails. Above, he demonstrates how he can chat with a woman in Mexico for a fee of nearly $13 per 20 minute call.
(Photo by Stina Sieg/KJZZ)
Inmate Dareon Reese waits for his fiancée and three children to call him up. Lower Buckeye has always used video-screen visitation. But now Reese’s family can use their home computer, instead of the jail’s video screen.
(Photo by Stina Sieg/KJZZ)
Kim Richter sees some of the benefits to this new system. But she says that online visitation is still a poor substitute to the real thing. Her husband is in state prison, where he can actually meet with his family in person.

The way people visit inmates has gotten a digital makeover at Maricopa County jails. Gone are the days of meeting in person, replaced by the largest inmate video chat system in the country. It can even be used from home for a price. It’s convenient, but it raises questions, like just how personal it feels to visit through a screen.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was trying out the system the other day at Phoenix’s Lower Buckeye Jail. He was sitting in a small plastic chair and chatting to a woman in Mexico on the other end of a video screen. At this official unveiling, Arpaio said this Skype-like system will help inmates’ loved ones who live far away. Before this, many of the county jails required video visitation – but it was a closed system. Visitors had to be at the jail to use it.  

“They’re going to get on an airplane to come down here?” Arpaio asked. “No! So, I think it’s a good program. I’m doing it for the families.”

And, it could be argued, for the fees. Dallas-based Securus Technologies paid for the system’s installation. And it will collect all the fees until 8,000 calls are made each month. Then, the sheriff’s office will get 10 percent of the money. That number will double once the company’s $2.5 million investment is paid off.

But what does that mean for families? The answer is $12.95 – for each 20-minute video call, with a promotional price until the end of the year. The money is designated for an inmate fund, meant to benefit people like Dareon Reese. The same afternoon, he was sitting deep inside the jail in what looked like a phone booth make of cement blocks, and waiting to make his second-ever video call to his fiancée and three kids.

“It’s real cool to me,” he said. “It’s better than the last program they had, to me."

In the past, they could connect by collect call, or by having them come down to the jail, where they’d still talk over video. They can do that once a week for free.

But this, “saves money with gas and all that from traveling, and then we get to see the whole family, instead of them just bringing two people inside the building,” Reese said.

But what about this whole idea of talking through a screen?

“Yeah, this kind of makes me feel like an animal,” Reese said. “I wish I could see my family in person and touch them, hug them.

That has never been possible at newer jails in the county. Even at older jails, the closest loved ones could get to inmates was seeing them through Plexiglas and talking over a phone, just like the movies. A local mother named Rae used to talk to her son that way.

She asked that her last name not be used.

“At least you could physically see them and see that they were physically OK,” she said.

But once he was locked up in a jail with a video system, all Rae could see was a head shot, and she had no idea about his real condition. Her son is in state prison now, which does not do video chat. But Rae said if he were still in the county, she wouldn’t use the online chat system. For her, it’s impersonal and too expensive.

“I mean, I’m retired,” she said. “Every penny counts, and I don’t have money in my budget to pay that $13 a visit.”

Even those who can pay and have a computer, Internet access and a webcam see problems with this plan. Sure, inmates have more opportunities to connect with people they love. But is convenience being traded for quality? When Kim Richter’s husband spent a year in county jail, they had a baby and a toddler.

She would bring them to the jail, but “you can’t keep that bonding going over a TV screen,” she said. “It’s really hard to do with a young child like that.”

That divide would have been there, even if they could have chatted from home. Richter’s husband is now in state prison, where he can see his family in person and hug them. Richter remembers the first time she brought the kids to see him.

“My daughter just kind of looked at him, and kind of leaned back. And then the second that he said something, you could just see it in her eyes that it just clicked, then she realized, ‘That’s my daddy,’” Richter said. “She ran up and gave him a huge hug. It was amazing.”

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