The Erie County Sheriff's Office this week rolled out its new video visitation program, allowing inmates to connect with family, friends – even attorneys – from video stations recently installed in the Erie County Holding Center on Delaware Avenue and the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.
The Sheriff's Office touts the new service as a way to improve safety, decrease the passing of contraband – and make some money, too.
"There is no cost to us," said Scott Zylka, Sheriff's Office spokesman. "IC Solutions pays for installation. It's their equipment. And the fee that was negotiated into the contract gives the Sheriff's Office a larger percentage than the company."
But the partnership between the Sheriff's Office and IC Solutions also may serve as a first step in phasing out personal visits with inmates, warned the executive director of Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts that advocates for prisoner rights.
"They often roll out these video calling contracts and then ban in-person visits several months later," said Peter Wagner, an attorney and executive director of Prison Policy Initiative. "I hope that's not the case here. There is no reason to put video calling kiosks in the facility to use unless they are planning to remove in-person visits."
Video stations are located throughout the two facilities, one unit per prisoner pod, which could house up to 30 inmates. Video kiosks were also installed in the lobbies of each facility, said Zylka.
Video visits are limited to one a day at 25 minutes each. A time must be reserved online by the visitor 24 hours in advance of the visit, which the inmate may accept or refuse. The visitor also picks up the tab. At $12.50 per session, it works out to 50 cents a minute.
Video visits will be offered seven days a week in three-hour morning, afternoon and evening segments, said Zylka. The first starts at 9:30 a.m and the last ends at 10 p.m.
Visitors may access the program through icsolutions.com or the ICS mobile app available in Google Play.
Of the 3,300 jails in the country, 500 have video visitation, said Wagner. Seventy-five percent of those facilities also prohibit in-person visitation.
"None of the state prisons ban in-person visits," Wagner said. "This really started to take off in 2013-2014."
Zylka declined to reveal the cost of the new visitation program or the revenue the Sheriff's Office will receive from each visit. The three-year contract with IC Solutions, a telecommunications company based in San Antonio, carries an option of two additional years.
Zylka maintained the Sheriff's Office is not about to halt person-to-person visitation in either of the two county jails.
"We still believe it important to have that interaction," said Zylka. "We don't see the need to completely eliminate face-to-face meetings."