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Advocates Question Plans For Video Visitations At Durham Jail

Durham County Detention Facility
Ildar Sagdejev (Specious)
Advocates and detainees fear video visitations cound replace in-person visits at the Durham County Jail.

Local activists are raising concerns about Durham County Sheriff’s Office plans to implement video visitation at the jail.

Members of the Inside-Outside Alliance repeatedly interrupted Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs' State of the County address Monday night, reading aloud letters from local detainees who fear video visitations could replace in-person visits. Sheriff's deputies removed and arrested five demonstrators, who are being charged with failure to disperse, inciting to riot and resisting arrest.

The Inside-Outside Alliance advocates for detainees' rights and is comprised in part of incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people. Members say they staged the protest because the Durham Board of Commissioners did not respond to their request to address video visitation or allow public comment at this month's meeting.

The sheriff's department will begin a pilot program for video visits this summer. During the trial phase, both in-person and video visits will be available.

Inside-Outside Alliance member David Theurer said he worries the sheriff's department will eventually eliminate or reduce access to in-person visits after the pilot program. That’s what happened in Charlotte and Mecklenburg after those counties installed on-site, video visitation monitors.

"Taking away this moment to share that little bit of space with people you love outside is just further isolating and dehumanizing them," Theurer said. "It's basically a glorified FaceTime call."

However, the system would not come with the same convenience as a phone-based video chat. At least initially, all visitors making video calls would have to do so at the detention facility during regular hours.

The sheriff's office has not made a definitive statement as to whether video conferences might replace in-person visitation for a majority of visitors in the future, according to Brian Jones, director of planning and development for the sheriff's office.

"I think it's always an option but it's really too early to tell how this is going to look,” Jones said. “We are really committed to trying to work with inmates and citizens in the community to provide options."

The sheriff's office issued a statement saying that the implementation of video visits is for the safety of the detention facility's staff, visitors and detainees. Jones said the possibility of allowing for visitation from remote visitors is also a potential benefit.

"There are people who are bedridden or in care facilities that aren't able to travel to Durham, or if they're out of state, this solution would allow those people an opportunity to visit with their loved ones," Jones said.

Remote visitation is not in the sheriff's department's immediate plans, but might become available in the future, possibly for a fee. The possibility of charging detainees' families for visits has also become a point of contention.

The Durham County Sheriff's Office has not made a decision whether or not it may charge for remote visitation services, if offered. There will be no charge for video services for visitors who come to the jail in person.

The sheriff's office says that the telephone and video service provider offered the option of revenue-generating services, but Sheriff Mike Andrews chose not to charge for on-site visitation.

"With the families of detainees in mind, this is not the first time Sheriff Andrews has declined proposed price increases or revenue-generating fees from potential vendors," the Sheriff's Office reported in a public statement.

Critics of video visitation say they worry the jail's phone services vendor may be able to profit from some detainees' families. The Durham Human Relations Commission, a city advisory board, has opposed the proposed video-only visitation for that reason, and in a recent report has recommended the detention facility continue to offer in-person visitation.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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