Communication between inmates and visitors at Iowa’s Dubuque County Jail is about to get a whole lot clearer. The facility’s aging video-conferencing equipment is being replaced by a modern Web-based system, which will provide higher quality images and the ability for prisoners to use email.

Dubuque County Jail Administrator Capt. Mike Muenster said the video technology currently being used at the jail is 9 years old and like many old TV monitors, the display has darkened, often making it difficult to see the facial features of some inmates. But instead of repairing items in a piecemeal fashion, he felt it made better sense to install a system that provides more advanced tools that could benefit everyone.

In addition to the upgraded picture, investigators and detectives will be able to logon to the system remotely to conduct an interview with an inmate or watch a visit taking place. The software can also record the session and make copies as needed.

Another feature available is for the public to have video chats with inmates from their homes. According to Muenster, while the option will be discussed further once the system is up and running, it likely won’t be rolled out.

Although online visitation has the potential to be a source of extra revenue by charging for those extra visits, he explained that the lack of control is a major concern.

“Even though someone may be on an inmate’s approved visitor list, we wouldn’t have the option of controlling that person on the other end inviting a protected party into their home to visit with the inmate,” Muenster said. “So that’s the driving force of why I wouldn’t allow that to happen.”

The use of email is a completely different story. Muenster said that option would be “wide open” for use by inmates and visitors. He was confident that security regarding the email functionality and Web-based sessions wouldn’t be an issue, because the technology uses advanced encryption.

A filter will also keep all email conversations fairly vanilla in terms of content.

“It cuts out words and phrases that wouldn’t be acceptable in a corrections environment,” Muenster said. “Any sort of threat won’t be allowed to be sent. There’s a big filter that will [only] allow general letters, a ‘hi, how are you doing?’ sort of thing.”

The technology — a solution from Renovo Software — will be installed by Visilinc and carries a price tag of $111,366. Muenster said he just submitted the order and expects the system to be online in about six months.

Taxpayers won’t be footing the bill for the upgrade however, as the cost will be covered through a separate inmate revenue account. Muenster explained that the account is made up of funds from sales of items to inmates that can only be used for services that directly benefit them.

Muenster was able to pay a 20 percent down payment on the technology through the fund and received a loan for the balance from the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors that will be paid back to the county at a minimum of $20,000 per year from the inmate fund.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.