Thousands of inmates in jails across Oregon can no longer talk with family and friends separated by a pane of glass. Across the state, county jails are installing video kiosks in jail dormitories and replacing in-person visitation with video chats.
The Multnomah County Sheriff is the latest to end face-to-face social visits. The newspaper Street Roots first broke the news that so-called “through the glass” visits were no longer allowed at the county’s Inverness Jail in North Portland, and would end at county’s downtown jail, the Multnomah County Detention Center, by 2015.
“Effective January 12, 2015 all social visits at Inverness Jail are video visits through Securus Video Visiting,” the county’s visitation guide reads.
In October of 2013, Sheriff Dan Staton signed a contract with the company Securus to install a video visitation system at the jails. Sheriff Staton oversees the largest county jail system in the state. It has 2,010 jail beds and booked 40,916 people in 2013, according to the Oregon Sheriff’s Jail Command Council.
Staton followed the lead of five jail facilities serving eight other Oregon counties that have used video visitation systems to replace face to face visitation. Those include Deschutes County, Lincoln County, Clackamas County, Josephine County, and the Norcor Jail, which serves four counties along the Columbia River.
The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office says switching to video will extend the hours inmates can communicate with their families. In the past, the jail has limited in-person visits to Saturdays and Sundays. The system was first-come-first-served, and family members often spent hours waiting in the lobby for their turn, according to Steve Alexander, a spokesman for the sheriff.
“You’ll now go online, you’ll schedule your visit. Seven days a week, you’ll be able to schedule a visit in our lobby and utilize one of the kiosks” Alexander said.
For a $5 fee, friends and family can set up a visit with an inmate from a laptop or PC.
Lane Borg with the Metropolitan Public Defenders office says he was blindsided by the change.
“We knew that kiosks were coming, but that the trade-off was going to be elimination of in person visits is distressing… it’s irresponsible,” he said.
Borg says seeing family and friends helps people stay mentally healthy and reduces the chances they will re-offend. He says public defenders are also concerned about the fees the new system imposes.
“You’re extracting money from the very people who need to be using it for some other purpose, like treatment or restitution or living,” he said.
At least two counties in Oregon — Jackson County and Washington County — have added video visitation while maintaining in-person visits. But Sheriff Staton agreed to end in-person jail visits in the contract he signed with Securus, the video kiosk company, in 2013.
The contract reads: “County will, except as necessary and appropriate to maintain harmony within the facility, as the Sheriff may determine on a case-by-case basis, eliminate all face to face visitation through the glass or otherwise at the Facility and will utilize video visitation for all non-professional on-site visitors.”
Steve Alexander, the spokesman, said the sheriff planned to review whether video visitation was meeting inmate needs and improving efficiency at the jail. If the sheriff is dissatisfied, he could amend or terminate the contract, Alexander said.
But according to the terms of the contract, if Multnomah County withdraws before five years have passed, the county could owe Securus more than half a million dollars.
A spokesman for Securus did not respond to calls and emails.
Read the full contract below.