The Durham County Detention Facility is implementing video visitation on October 15, the Sheriff's Office announced Friday.
The pilot program has been in the works since 2013, when Durham County commissioners accepted a Justice Department grant to fund the program. The plan has been a source of concern for activists protesting conditions at the jail, who fear video will replace in-person visits and wouldn't offer the same personal connection.
"We're still offering in-person visits," Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews said in a statement. "It's also my responsibility to make sure the detention facility offers professional, modern, and courteous customer service. This technology offers detainees another way to connect with their families while they're in custody."
Visitors who want to use the service will have to travel to the jail to use one of eight monitors in the lobby. The Sheriff's Office says it has no plans to assess a fee for using those monitors.
According to the Sheriff's Office, detainees can currently schedule two twenty-minute visits per week. They'll be able to schedule a third using the video visitation system. Video visits will be available certain hours during the day Mondays through Thursdays, plus an hour-and-a-half slot for in-person visits in the evenings. In-person visits are offered for four hours each on Saturdays and Sundays.
A recent study by the Vera Institute found that detainees at Washington state prisons who received video visits saw an increase in in-person visits. But the report suggests that the benefits of video visitation hinge on whether the service is offered as an additional option to in-person visits and as an affordable, remote service that can be accessed from any computer.
"Through all of these changes," wrote researcher Léon Digard, "more needs to be done to ensure that technology is democratized in similar ways within custodial settings as it has been on the outside—available to everyone, unhampered by poor quality and high costs. At the same time, the right to in-person visits must not only be fiercely safeguarded, it should also be bolstered for the benefit of all people, both inside and outside of prison."
The Sheriff's Office says it "is considering whether to offer remote at-home visitation," keeping the burden of potential fees in mind. "The Agency is sensitive to the financial demands placed on families. For this reason, the Sheriff's Office has not yet decided to offer at-home remote visits which could require a user fee."