The Hendersonville Star News
Sumner County Jail inmate Cynthia Garrett said her children are no longer nervous when they visit with her, which they can now do by computer or a smartphone anywhere they are connected to the Internet.
“It’s a more comfortable visit because they’re in a home environment, and it’s more convenient for their father,” said Garrett, whose five-year sentence expires in 2015.
The new-generation video system allows inmates to have scheduled visits over the Internet with their loved ones, wherever they are. The move will increase visitation choices for inmates and boost revenue for the county, which is expected to save taxpayer money in the long run, said Sumner County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Don Linzy, who helps oversee the system.
The system, which is called Homewav, took five months to install and has been up and running for about 30 days. Inmates have used it about 300 times, Homewav records show.
The video conferencing works like this: Inmates can talk up to 20 minutes at a time between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. for 50 cents per minute, or leave a message for $1. The inmate sits in front of a monitor at the jail, with the visitor onscreen. Usage is unlimited at this point. HomeWAV does not require scheduling.
“It works a lot like Skype,” corrections officer Nick Bethea said. “They don’t get any contact with the world. Homewav gives them the chance to visit with their family more often and get closer to their family while in jail.”
Though it is too early to project revenue numbers, 30 percent of the charge for inmates to use the system will go to the county’s general fund, Linzy said. The program was installed at the jail for free.
“It’s just another way for the inmates to pay for their care instead of the taxpayers,” Linzy said. “It also helps keep contraband down.”
The additional revenue to the county will help shore up the jail’s expenses and could prevent future tax increases, Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford said.
Weatherford came across Homewav at a conference and recommended implementing it locally. After researching the system’s functions, Linzy found it to be “a win-win situation.”
“This brings revenue in the county and it’s giving inmates a way to visit with their family, who don’t have to come to the jail,” he said.
There have been a few hiccups with the new system. In some cases, a bad Internet connection has prevented an inmate from seeing a visitor on video. Because all of the communications are recorded, if an inmate has a bad connection, jail officials can review the video and refund the price of the visit if necessary, Linzy said. Records were not yet available Monday to show how many bad connections have occurred.
“It’s still in the catch-on phase,” Linzy said.
Weatherford said the sheriff’s office has received “two or three” reports from visitors complaining of technical problems likely resulting from a poor Internet connection.
Officials also have control to review every conversation and shut off the system when needed. The system would be shut down during inmate transfers.
“We don’t want the inmates to have any contact with the outside world while we’re transferring inmates, in case someone wants to free an inmate or to hurt an inmate,” Linzy said.
There have also been problems with inmates or visitors exposing themselves via video conferencing with the jail’s in-house video visitation system, which is used by inmates who do not have in-person visitation privileges. That system has been operational for about a decade. But Linzy said that problem is not unique to Sumner and it has not been an issue yet with the new system.
“(Nudity) came up as a concern,” he said. “Every jail that has video visitation has to deal with that, but we don’t want to punish all inmates.”
The old in-house system offers the state-mandated one-hour weekly visit and is free, though visitors have to come to the jail to use it. Only inmates placed on work crews receive in-person visitations on weekends that are not conducted through video conferencing, jail Administrator Sonya Troutt said.
Inmates can use the system without a guard looking over their shoulder, but if they violate rules, such as exposing themselves or damaging equipment, reprimands follow. Inmates can lose visitation privileges for a period of time, be segregated or receive additional criminal charges, Troutt said.
“This is one privilege that can be taken away from them,” Linzy said. “This is another incentive for them to behave.”
The system can be particularly useful for those who have a hard time getting to the jail, such as the elderly or handicapped, or those who live out of state, Troutt said.