Jail ending in-person visits; switching to video chats

NORTH DARTMOUTH, Mass. (WPRI) – A Massachusetts jail will soon implement a new technology that will end in-person visits between inmates and their family members and friends.

Officials at the Bristol County House of Corrections in North Dartmouth said they are making the switch over to video calls to prevent drugs and contraband from making its way into the facility. There is already a non-contact visitation policy in place – where the visitor and inmate are separated by a piece of Plexiglas – but Bristol County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Jonathan Darling said contraband is still slipping through the cracks.

“Inmates have all day to think about ways to get drugs into the facility,” said Darling. “We’re just trying to fight it as much as we can.”

A visitor recently managed to slip a strip of the narcotic Suboxone behind chipped paint on the wall of the visitation area, according to Darling. Later, an inmate on cleaning duty picked it up.

“At one time it was contact visits but because of the contraband coming in, and the passing of contraband amongst the visitors and the inmates, we chose to go to non-contact,” Darling said.

Trailer where jail visitors will communicate with inmates via a videophone.

With video visitation, visitors will not step foot inside the actual jail. Instead they will be directed to a different building – a converted trailer – in a visitor lot at the entrance of the facility. Inside are rows of chairs facing video units with two phone receivers attached.

“We have video screens set up in a new building where they will do the visit right there over the video screen with their person they’re visiting,” Darling said.

Despite officials billing it as a tool to help ensure inmate safety, the new technology is not sitting well with prison right’s advocates.

Videophone visitors will use to communicate with inmates.

Aaron Wolfson, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts ACLU said in a statement, “cutting off the human contact is cruel to people in jail, their families and loved ones.”

“As any Skype user can tell you, video communication may provide a benefit to people who are far apart or unable to travel,” Wolfson wrote. “But it’s no substitute for being in the same room with the person you love.”

In addition to video visitation from the facility itself, Darling said the prison is exploring allowing people to “call” an inmate from home using an app on their mobile device or computer.

But it comes at a cost. Darling said the company that runs the technology will charge a fee, but he does not know how much that will be just yet.

The ACLU said those fees can be “prohibitively expensive.”

“Lawmakers should act swiftly to pass a bill filed by Senator Mark Montigny that would ensure the use of video visitation at facilities in Massachusetts doesn’t come at the expense of in-person visitation, and that fees for video visitation are reasonable,” Wolfson said.

Bristol County is the first facility in the state of Massachusetts to experiment with this technology. Target 12 contacted each sheriff’s office in the state as well as the Department of Corrections, with only two commenting that they are considering the technology.

“We’re doing this to keep weapons and drugs out of our jail,” said Darling. “If we can eliminate people bringing weapons and drugs into the jail, it can only work to help keep loved ones safer when they’re here.”