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Location: Scottsdale, Arizona, United States

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Interesting linkage between inmates and technology

Video screens edge out face-to-face visits in jail

Judi Villa
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 31, 2005 12:00 AM

Angelina Mendibles squirmed in a plastic chair then turned and reached for her father. On a video screen in a stainless steel cubicle, Angelina's father, jailed for four months now, smiled back at her. The 1-year-old babbled into a phone.

This is visitation in Maricopa County's Fourth Avenue Jail, where handsets and video screens have replaced face-to-face contact. What's happening here could become the norm across the country in coming years as jails and prisons increasingly embrace video visitation as a smart management policy.

And, as technology continues to improve, such video encounters eventually could take place from the comfort of home, virtually revolutionizing visitation as we know it.

Families bemoan the loss of personal contact, even though touching and hand-holding was never allowed. But officials say it's not such a bad trade-off for more frequent visits, much shorter wait times and safer jails.

Because inmates hook up in their housing units, it cuts down on movement, reduces the number of assaults and eliminates opportunities for contraband to be smuggled into jails.

Video visitation also helps inmates maintain contact with their families, making them mellower behind bars and perhaps keeping them connected enough to ease their transition back home. That in turn could reduce recidivism.

"It's a good, good morale booster on both sides of the fence," Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said. "You can't blame a family for some member of the family that ... ends up in jail. You shouldn't penalize the family who want to visit."

At Maricopa County's two newest jails, the Fourth Avenue and Lower Buckeye jails, and at the tents at the Estrella Jail, video is the only way to visit. It has reduced wait time for visits from several hours to mere minutes, as inmates no longer have to be escorted by detention officers to visiting areas with limited seating.

There are 126 booths for visitors, spread over the three facilities, and 280 for inmates. Each station costs up to $4,000 and is paid for from a one-fifth cent sales tax voters approved for jails in 1998 and extended for 20 more years in 2002.

The technology is slowly spreading in Maricopa County, with public defenders, probation officers and even some criminal attorneys getting access in their offices over the next six months.

The county also is working with ValueOptions, the Valley's public mental-health provider, to provide hookups for virtual psychiatric evaluations. And judges have expressed interest in electronic courtrooms.

The Arizona Department of Corrections uses video hookups at its Tucson and Alhambra prisons to connect visitors to inmates housed at facilities in other states.

And Pinal County expects to have the technology in its current jail by the end of the year. It will allow inmates to have 30 minutes of visitation daily instead of 20 to 30 minutes a week, said Terry Altman, chief deputy for detention at the Pinal County Sheriff's Office. Currently, more than 700 inmates share eight in-person visiting booths.

"Maintaining contact with the outside world is critically important while they're in here," Altman said. "Any opportunity we can have to allow the people who are incarcerated to maintain contact with their families is a plus. It allows them to feel they have some influence and some connection with their families."

Angelina's mother, Sonia Munoz, brings her from Tucson to visit her father every couple weeks. But the visits are difficult, Munoz said, because it's hard to keep Angelina's attention. Her father is watching Angelina grow up on TV, and Munoz misses the connection that comes with eye contact.

"It makes it a lot harder," Munoz said. "You kind of just want to have that physical contact, even if it's just a hug."

Still, she said, Angelina "can see him on the screen, and she does recognize him. . . . For him to see her, it's worth it. She's grown a lot, and he's missed it."

With more than 10,700 jail inmates in Maricopa County and an average of 12,000 visitors monthly, Arpaio said he'd like to see home-based visitation within the next year.

All that would be needed in the home is a Web cam, a microphone and a computer with a broadband Internet connection. If it happens, it would be the first program of its kind in the country to hook up private homes and jails, Arpaio said.

"It's the right thing to do," Arpaio said. "The kids can get on and talk to their father.

"This way you could see the 2-year-old baby. They talk to the family. It's nice to be able to relate to the family."

Alternatively, Arpaio is eyeing regional visitation centers where people could "visit" inmates while staying closer to home. Pinal County officials also are looking toward satellite visitation centers.

Manuel Rodriguez, 41, who is serving time for drug charges at the Fourth Avenue Jail, said at first video visitation seemed "awkward," but now he likes it. Visits are quicker, and he's not racking up friends' phone bills with collect calls from jail.

"You still get to see 'em," Rodriguez said. "They're right there in front of the screen."

But to Beverly Kelley, of Glendale, who visited her son, Kurt, at the jail, it wasn't the same.

"I would have rather seen him in person," Kelley said, but "it's better than nothing."

During their 30-minute visit, Kelley had to keep asking Kurt to look up so she could see his eyes. She was relieved to see he "looked good" after six months in jail, that he "doesn't look beat up. I worry about that."

Still, she said, the visit was "a little impersonal."

"I just want to hug him."