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July 21, 2014 | 12:48 PMMILWAUKEE (AP) — Relatives who want to visit inmates in five Wisconsin counties no longer have to come to the jail in person, thanks to recently installed systems that allow them to visit from afar through a Skype-like video system.
Racine County is the most recent county to implement the new video equipment, made by Dallas-based Securus Technologies. It allows families to stay in touch with inmates without having to travel to the prison or wait for guards to escort their loved one to the visiting room.
"This allows more flexibility for people to have visits from home, or for attorneys to meet with their clients," Racine County sheriff's Lt. Shawn Barker said. Video visits are available "anywhere where they have the necessary technology to make it happen."
Many people already have the necessary technology — a webcam and a computer with a high-speed Internet connection.
The service is also available at jails in Barron, Chippewa, Forest and Marathon counties. Authorities in other counties say they're keeping an eye on how well the new systems work to evaluate whether to offer the same option.
Deputies say video visitations are easier to monitor because inmates don't have to be shuffled around the building, and there's no risk of visitors trying to sneak in contraband. Also, video visits are recorded and can be watched remotely, limiting the number of staffers who have to be in the room.
Visitors must be at least 18 years old and on a visitation list approved by jail staff. That prevents inmates from meeting with possible witnesses, co-defendants or people with whom courts have ordered them to have no contact.
Visitors pre-register with a photo identification, and approvals take 24 to 48 hours. After that, they can schedule appointments and conduct video visitations during approved times.
Costs for video visits vary but are generally 25 cents per minute, in prepaid increments of 20, 30 or 40 minutes.
Securus has charged as much as $1 per minute at facilities in other states. The company did not immediately return messages asking about its pricing policies.
The Securus video consists of a tamper-resistant kiosk with a color video screen, along with a phone handset so other inmates can't eavesdrop. The visitor and inmate are both reminded at the outset that their conversation will be recorded and monitored. Calls between attorneys and their clients are private.
Video visitors who wear provocative clothing or who flash nudity are barred from future video calls. So are those who flash gang signs or display contraband such as drugs and weapons.
In Barron County, visitors can still come into the lobby and conduct video sessions for free. The Securus option was added in October at no cost to the county, Sheriff's Capt. Tim Evenson said.
He said the new technology is a big help to families who live in a different county or state — but not everyone likes it.
"Some families don't like the video aspect. They'd rather see them in person," he said. "I can understand that, but it just takes a lot more resources to make that happen."
Authorities across the state are paying attention. Elise Schaffer, a spokeswoman for Dane County sheriff's office, said officials plan to re-evaluate their systems at the end of the year.
Securus serves about 2,200 correctional facilities in 45 states.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at email@example.com.