GREENFIELD — When Darrell Porter saw his girlfriend, a wide grin spread across his face. They chatted about little things.
Tammy Ivey teased him about having not shaved, and Porter joked that she hadn’t combed her hair that day. She asked about family members, and he told her about a letter he wrote that day. They slipped in “I love yous” like periods at the end of a sentence.
All the while, a timer in the corner of the screen ticked away the time they had left to talk.
Ivey was arrested in early June after she failed to show up to court. Now, the only way the couple can see each other is by using a video visitation system that has been installed at the Hancock County Jail.
The system, which went live June 26, promotes safer and more efficient jail visits, staff said, while allowing inmates to see their loved ones more often. Additionally, the changes comes at no extra cost to the county through an agreement with the jail’s phone service provider.
The system uses technology similar to any online video chat program, said Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Craig, the department’s jail commander. New monitors have been placed inside each cellblock, and matching receivers have been placed in the jail lobby. Video feed is transmitted using the jail’s internal phone system and is monitored at all times by jail officers.
Visitors historically have not had physical contact with inmates; the program replaces the common visitation practice of allowing inmates to communicate with their friends and family with a piece of glass separating them, Craig said. Having monitors in the cellblocks eliminates the need to move inmates to and from the visitation room; and it’s safer when inmates stay in one place, Craig said.
Inmates are still trying to get used to the change.
Since their conversations with friends and loved ones now happen in their living space, background noise from other inmates can make it difficult to hear, inmate Seira Wood said.
Wood also has concerns about privacy. Since the visitors’ video monitor is in the lobby, passers-by can see inside the cellblock through the video feed when someone else is visiting an inmate, she said.
“One girl’s boss walked through the lobby during a visit and saw that she was in here,” Wood said. “I don’t like that.”
Until Ivey is released in December, the video visitation system is the only way for Porter to spend time with her. It’s not ideal, he admits, but it’s better than nothing.
“It’s not too bad,” Porter said. “And I can understand it from a safety point, too. It’s faster and easier, and it seems to work a little better; you don’t have a whole crowd of people standing around waiting.”
Adding video visitation had been discussed among officers and county officials for many years, according to Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy. A $200,000 installation estimate years ago, when the video visitation system was considered new technology, was cost-prohibitive, he said. As video systems became more common, the price decreased and became available with the company’s regular phone package, Burkhart said.
Before the video system was installed, visits were limited to 30-minute sessions only on Saturdays. Dozens of families would pack into the jail lobby, Craig said, and they would wait for an hour or two at a time for their turn to be called. This required some jail staffers to monitor the lobby while their colleagues monitored inmates in the visitation booth and inside the jail.
Now, visitors can sign up for 20-minute sessions on any day of the week, and each inmate is allotted two weekly visits, Craig said. Because the video visits are transmitted into the jail’s command center, staff can monitor the visit while keeping an eye on security cameras, he said.
For the most part, inmates and their visitors have been supportive of the new system, and jailers haven’t heard complaints, Craig said.
“It’s quicker for them to visit because they don’t have to sit and wait,” Craig said. “It frees up staff on both sides, and it takes care of some security issues for us.”
Among the concerns were that visitors would sneak in contraband. While visitors did not have contact with inmates to slip prohibited items to them, there were occasions when visitors would leave items in the visitation room.
Inmate workers who cleaned the area picked those items up and brought them into the jail, Sheriff Mike Shepherd said.
But visitation is important for inmate morale, Shepherd said, and keeping inmates happy usually means fewer problems in the cellblocks.
“I think especially when you’re in that type of an environment, then obviously, any kind of contact with your family … you always love to hear from them,” he said.