Pennsylvania County Jail to Launch Paid Video Chats with Inmates on September 1st

The first stage of internet chatting was text-based in the form of “instant messaging.”  But since the internet’s fledgling days, web technology has evolved and expanded.  Today’s webcams and video chat services like Skype and FaceTime make face-to-face conversations easy and instantaneous, connecting people who are thousands of miles apart in real-time.  Now, one western Pennsylvania county jail has seized on the same idea, and plans to offer 25-minute video chat sessions with inmates for a fee of $15 per “visit.” Could this program spread to Bucks County and other eastern counties in the future?

Handcuffs on laptop keyboard

Westmoreland County Prison Raising Money with $15 “Video Visits”

Pennsylvania’s financial issues have been in and out of the news and recent months.  But one western Pennsylvania county jail is taking a drastic approach to the addressing the state’s budgetary problems by introducing a pay-to-play video chatting program with inmates.  Video chatting has been popular for years, but using web cams in this context is is a fairly novel idea.

Unless something goes wrong or causes delays, the program is scheduled to launch at the Westmoreland County Prison in Greensburg on September 1st, 2014.  So far, the facility is still preparing for the change, and has contracted Minnesota-based Renovo Software to install web cameras at various points around the prison.  The video sessions will be recorded, and the participants will receive instructions about how to use the system before it goes live in the fall.  According to Warden John Walton, “There will be some type of a trial period” before the system is officially live.

Warden Walton says the new “video visit” policy will include up to two 25-minute visits per week.  Sessions will cost $15 per visit — $12.75 of which (or 85%) will be dropped directly into Westmoreland County’s bank account.  Under the previous policy, inmates were allowed up to three 30-minute, in-person visits per week.  Warden Walton says the weekly in-person visits will drop down to only one once the video chatting system has been adopted.

Health Of Your Finances

Hundreds of Thousands in Profit?

While this unusual program is primarily financially motivated, the prison has cited additional reasons for its implementation.  Prison officials say the instant nature of video chats will be more convenient for long-distance visitors, who will now be able to access inmates at the touch of a button without having to embark on long and costly drives.

Staff also say the Westmoreland inmates will now have access to more people.  The previous system limited the number of participants in in-person visits to three people per session, while more than three people will be allowed to join in a single video visit session.

Adoption of the system was formally approved back in March, based on a vote by prison board members.  The board projected that switching to video visits would net hundreds of thousands of dollars over a five-year period.  Considering the $92,678 cost of installing the system, the switch has the potential to be highly profitable for the county.

At present, the facility contains about 600 inmates, though the official capacity is closer to 700.

It will certainly be interesting to monitor the effects of this rather drastic change in the coming months.  If the system is a financial success, it’s possible that other counties could follow suit — particularly those which are under the heaviest financial strain.  At present, the Pennsylvania counties with the lowest per capita incomes are Forest, Mifflin, and Fayette.

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