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Leon County: A Local Look At Jail's Video Visitation, Future Plans

In an introductory video, Homewav.com, a vendor, shows an inmate speaking with his family via video visitation.

As more and more jails and prison facilities across the U.S. move toward offering video visitation, some are raising concerns it will take the place of in-person visits with loved ones behind bars. We'll take a look at the Leon County Detention facility that has video visitation in parts of its jail, and its future plans.

Christina Underwood describes herself as a lifelong Tallahassee resident. She says whether it’s a state prison or a county jail, she’s against any attempts to have nothing but video visitation as a means to visit with friends and family behind bars.

“Now, I understand that it does help to give the inmates more opportunity for face-to-face visit for visitation,” said Underwood, during a recent public hearing about state prison visitiation hours. “I do have the problem with the fact that I believe—as many others do—that eventually, that video visitation is going to take the place of contact visits. I see it currently happening at Leon County Jail.”

Underwood’s fiancée is serving time at Bay County correctional—a state run facility. But, she says before that, he was in the Leon County jail.

“I have friends who are there,” added Underwood. “My fiancée was there before he went to Bay, and now I have friends who work there as well. And, they have confirmed to me that since the implementation of video visitation, Leon County has now decided to get rid of face-to-face in-person visits.”

Currently, the only people allowed to do face to face in-person contact visits are doctors and attorneys.

But, face-to-face visits through a glass window and a phone—which are free—are still allowed.

Visitation hours at Leon County Jailare every day from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. with an hour and a half break in between to account for the shift change and inmate count.

And, each inmate is allowed five 30 minute visits that can’t exceed 2 and half hours total per week.

In addition to visits through the glass window, Leon County Jail offers two other types: remote and regular video visitation.

Since April 2017, video visitation is allowed in Pods N, O, P, and medical—with visitors talking to inmates while in the jail’s lobby.

And, on a trial basis, Leon County Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Shonda Knight says a vendor named “Homewav” has been offering inmates in “Pod L” and their loved ones the option of remote video visitation through cell phones.

Either way, you must be registered on Homewav.com’s website and money must already be in the account.

According to that website, the cost at most facilities is 50 cents per minute for video visitation and $1 for video messages—with an added convenience fee of $1 for each session.

Knight says eventually, the long term goal for sheriff’s officials is to have video visitation throughout the whole of the jail—not just in select pods. But, in person visits through a glass window would still be in place.

As for Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, he says one of the main benefits of the video service is security.

“Well, obviously, security issues and other issues—in terms of family members in and out—and we just had recently here in Leon County, where a person was doing a visitation and said he got lost and that sort of thing…so, the vulnerabilities, the liabilities associated with it—particularly when you bring children to the institutions,” he said.

And, McNeil says due to the “sheer number” of inmates, officers, and visitors, it makes sense to limit the amount of movement in and out of the facility.

“When you think about it, on a regular basis, every day, if you have 1,000 persons in your institution—in our case our detention facility—if everybody showed up, it would be a really difficult time getting all those persons in and out of the institutions,” he added. “So, the digital process is both advantageous to visitors and advantageous to staff and the persons who are incarcerated.”

Meanwhile, new video visitation contracts are in the works for the Leon County Detention Facility.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.