A new program in the Virginia Beach, Va., jail is making it easier for inmates to communicate with their families through voice, text and video — but those connections come at a cost.
(TNS) — It probably happens at least a few times a day in the cell block where Jacob Carlson is housed at the city jail.
"Jacob. You've got another visit," one of the other inmates will call out. And more often than not, it's Carlson's girlfriend.
She's not at the jail, though.
Most of the time, she's at the doctor's office where she works, using her cellphone to call one of the new computer tablets recently placed in Carlson's cell block.
The devices were supplied to the jail free of charge by GTL, a Northern Virginia tech firm that specializes in technology for jails and prisons, according to the sheriff's department.
They allow inmates to have web-based video chats with their family and friends from their cell block during designated hours. They also can be used to send text messages, watch movies, play games, read books and news articles, listen to music, and order items from the canteen. Several educational sites also are available.
The jail, which houses about 1,400 inmates, received 250 of them last week — about one for every five to six inmates, jail spokeswoman Kathy Hieatt said. If the demand turns out to be high, more tablets will be added, Hieatt said.
In the block where Carlson is assigned, there are eight for 32 inmates.
"A lot of them (inmates) have family that don't live in the area, and can't come to the jail for visits," said Chief Deputy Victoria Thomson, who oversees operations. Having tablets in the cell blocks allows friends and family to have some face time with inmates most anytime from anywhere in the world.
While the devices were provided free to the sheriff's department, most services cost money.
Video chats cost 25 cents a minute, or $7.50 for a half hour. Text messages up to 500 characters are 25 cents each. An hour and a half-long movie can total about $4.50. Free services include scheduling visits with the jail's medical staff, or logging a complaint, Hieatt said.
Inmates pay for the charges with money that they or others put into pre-paid accounts. The sheriff's office will collect 25 percent of the revenue earned by GTL.
The devices have been popular. About 2,000 web-based visits and 17,000 messages were recorded in the first week, Hieatt said.
Prior to the tablets being made available, the only way to see an inmate face-to-face was to schedule a meeting and come to the jail to talk via video monitor. That service will continue to be available to use for free.
For remote visits, inmates have to use the tablets in the area where they are docked on the wall. But they can take the devices to their bunk when they want to watch a movie, read or listen to music. Each inmate was supplied with a set of headphones when the technology was installed.
All activity is recorded and monitored, Hieatt said. Inmates who use them in violation of the facility's rules risk losing their privileges and could face other sanctions deemed necessary, she said.
Carlson, 23, who has been jailed since August on a probation violation and expects to be released in May, has been a frequent user. In addition to video chats with his girlfriend, he's watched an episode of "House of Cards" and checked out some of the educational information.
One of his favorite offerings is a skateboarding video game. He estimated that he spent more than $20 playing one day, and about $200 overall since the tablets got there.
"It's kind of addicting," he said.
Carlson's girlfriend works two jobs, so it's difficult for her to come to the jail, he said. His mother lives in Florida and isn't able to get there. She hasn't figured out how to use the system yet, but hopes to soon with help from his girlfriend, he said.
"To be able to see someone you care about, it makes it a lot better," Carlson said.
©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.