On Sept. 12, The Ada County Sherriff's Office announced that all jail visits will now take place via video chat. The Ada County Jail Video Visitation system utilizes software created by Boise-based technology firm Blackfin.
"In May of 2010, we put them in and started using them," said Andrea Dearden, public information officer for ACSO. "We installed the stations in the dorms to start. That was the first place we had them. Slowly but surely, we got them into more areas of the jail. We tested it, adding more people and more users."
Using Acer laptops equipped with webcams and microphones, inmates can now chat from their dormitory with friends and family anywhere in the country. Each inmate is given two 25-minute sessions every two weeks, for a total of 100 minutes each month.
After those two free visits, visitors can purchase additional sessions with an inmate for $6.18 per visit. Inmates can use two video sessions per day.
The inmates were traditionally given an hour of face-to-face visitation per week. A visit to an inmate in jail required a couple hours and a trip to a special visitor's room inside the facility. Visitation times were dependent on the specific hours allotted for each dorm, with no other options. Some times were very early, some in the middle of the day.
"We’ve added additional stations. We had to make sure that we had a way for the highest level of security inmates to access the computers without having to move them anywhere."
Not having to move the inmates, according to Dearden, is a huge cost-saving move. The process of funneling inmates through the visitation process required a lot of staff to move them from their cells and back. Now, the jail can reallocate staff and save money.
Dearden said the laptops were $400 each and the stations cost a total of $32,000.
"They're inexpensive Acer laptops," she said. "Correctional Industries built the holder … The only other cost was wiring. We expect to recoup all of the cost of building that within nine months."
After those nine months, the jail will turn a small profit on the system from the $6.18 per-visit cost. Blackfin and Access Idaho, the company that processess billing will also get a cut of the revenue.
"It’s been a process," said Dearden. "We’ve talked with the inmates all along. They’ve had a chance to ease into this."
She said the whole goal is to better connect inmates with their families, as it speeds their development.
"We know that’s important. [It's] a healthier and better thing for all of our inmates," said Dearden.