In the movies, prison visits often end as visitors and inmates place their palms on either side of a glass panel separating convicts from the public. But as of last month, male inmates at the Shelby County Jail are no longer able to get so close to loved ones.
These days, jail visitors talk to inmates through a computer monitor. Thirty video visitation stations have been installed in housing units at the 201 Poplar facility, and another 31 will be operational soon.
Using the old system, inmates had to be transported down several floors to the visitation area. The new stations are installed on each floor.
"As opposed to moving inmates a few floors, now they can move a few steps to talk on a computer monitor that connects them instantly to a family member or attorney," says Steve Shular, a spokesperson for the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.
Shular says the decision to switch to video stations was primarily a safety issue.
"Every time you take an inmate out of a cell and move him off the floor, that movement creates a potential safety issue," Shular says.
Visitors will continue to use the old visitation area to view inmates on computer screens. But Shular says the department hopes to eventually install monitors in other public places.
"In the future, people might even be able to go to a public library and visit with an inmate through a video station," Shular says. "That's especially important for people with elderly family members who cannot get to the jail."
Stations have already been installed at the Shelby County Public Defender's Office so attorneys can have a direct link with their clients while avoiding jail security measures. And plans are in the works to have cameras installed inside courtrooms, allowing inmates to be arraigned without ever leaving the jail.
The $700,000 system was installed with money generated from inmate telephone calls. When an inmate places collect calls to friends and family, the receiver is charged $1.50 for a 15-minute block of time. That money goes into a county general fund that can be used for jail improvement projects.
Female inmates will still conduct visits the old-fashioned way, however. Their facility at Jail East, which was built in 1999, was designed in such a way that inmates can easily be moved to visitation areas.
"Other jails and prison systems around the country have used these video systems," Shular says. "We thought it was vitally important to get up-to-speed on the new industry standard."