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Prentiss County, Miss., Jail Introduces Video Visitations

In these days of COVID-19, Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar still does not allow the prisoner and the visitor in the same room. Instead, the county jail started video visitation last week.

by William Moore, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal / September 8, 2020
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(TNS) — For the first time since mid-March, people incarcerated in the Prentiss County, Miss., Jail can visit face to face with their friends and family.

In these days of COVID-19, Sheriff Randy Tolar still does not allow the prisoner and the visitor in the same room. Instead, the county jail started video visitation last week.

“It’s up and running and has already started getting usage,” Tolar said. “In addition to the visitation, they can also get text messages and pictures through the system.”

Before the coronavirus shut down jail visitation six months ago, there were only a handful of visitation slots available for the 70 prisoners. Back then, visitation was only allowed during three-hour spans on Saturdays and Sundays.

Now, anyone connected to the internet through a smartphone, tablet or computer can schedule a visit. And they are not limited to weekend afternoons. Visits can be scheduled between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

“It has plenty of benefits for us,” Tolar said. “My staff has less contact with the public here at the office, preventing the possible spread of COVID. And we don’t have to move prisoners from a secure area for visitation. It offers us both convenience and security.”

The 70-bed jail has five secure zones. Each zone has two of the video phones installed. There are also a pair of video visitation stations set up in the jail lobby.

“The ones in the lobby will probably be for older folks who are not as tech savvy,” Tolar said. “Those will only be available during regular business hours. Most of the people will be visiting from their home computer.”

People will log on to the Cidnet.net website and set up an account, then schedule a time for the video visitation. At the appointed time, the prisoner will go the video station and wait for the call, which is similar to Skype.

Like all calls into a jail, the video visits will be monitored and recorded. In addition, the system will be set up with keywords, including “escape” and profanities. If any keyword is mentioned by the inmate or the visitor, the jail staff is alerted to review the comments.

In the past, visits were limited to just two people. With video visitation, there is no limit the number of people who can be involved. Where small children were not allowed during in-person visitation, children of all ages can take part in the video version.

Through technology, a prisoner can even “participate” in a birthday party or family reunion without leaving the jail.

There is a fee for the video visits, but the sheriff’s office will not receive any of the proceeds.

The opportunity to offer video visitation actually came about as Tolar sought to solve a totally different problem. Law enforcement agencies have until January 2021 to comply with the federally mandated National Incident-Based Reporting System. To get the new reporting system, the department needed a new jail and records management software system.

While at a sheriffs convention, he was approached by a company who could not only handle the jail management, but also offered computer-aided dispatching, plus video visitation and the commissary – when inmates can purchase snacks and basic needs while in jail.

“We were able to work out a deal where we didn’t have to pay a huge sum up front,” Tolar said. “We’re a small rural department and can’t come up with $300,000. We’ll make payments and it will be offset somewhat by the fees they charge in the commissary and the visitation.”

The new commissary and video visitation systems are up and running. The department is still working to switch over to the jail management and dispatching systems. Not only will the new systems bring them into federal compliance, it should make the officers jobs a little easier, once they get used to it.

“It will be a change for the staff,” Tolar said. “The reporting system we have is one we created ourselves and it has worked.

“But the new reporting system will start with the initial call. All the information the dispatcher takes down will be logged in. The patrol deputy will have access to all that information. His report will be added to the document.

“If they are brought to jail, that information will be added. Then the investigator will have everything in one place to start his work.”

The new systems can also be expanded to video hearings. Since the Prentiss County Justice Court is in the same building with the jail, that use would be limited on misdemeanor charges. But it could save time and transportation costs dealing with routine felony hearings that take place miles away at the county courthouse in downtown Booneville.

Since March, the Mississippi Supreme Court has allowed sentencing and probation violation hearings be done electronically. Last Friday, Chief Justice Mike Randolph issued an order giving trial judges the discretion to use interactive audiovisual equipment to conduct plea hearings.

©2020 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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