U.S. Virgin Islands to Offer Video Visitation in Jails

The V.I. Bureau of Corrections is adopting video chatting visitations as an alternative to in-person visiting to make the process more cost effective and easier to access, as well as preventing contraband.

by A.J. Rao, The Virgin Islands Daily News / May 8, 2019

(TNS) — Part of Wynnie Testamark’s new vision for the U.S. Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections involves improving inmate care while still enhancing security and reducing costs to taxpayers. In three-to-four months, a new video visitation and money transfer program is poised to do all three.

On Tuesday, Director nominee Testamark sat down with The Daily News to discuss the bureau’s new contract with VendEngine, a company that specializes in technology platforms for the correctional industry.

According to Testamark, within 90 days, a team from VendEngine is expected to visit the jail facilities on both St. Thomas and St. Croix, and begin setup and installation of three video monitors for each island and a set of money transfer kiosks as part of a visitation program involving off-island inmates.

Specifically, the program will allow local Virgin Islanders to see and talk with loved ones who may be incarcerated on a different island, or on the mainland, via a free smartphone app, a deliberate shift away from person-to-person visits where families shoulder travel expenses and additional staff are needed to supervise — at greater cost.

“Right now, we have two officers and a supervisor who monitor person-to-person visits,” Testamark said. “With video visitation, we’ll only need one, which definitely helps because we are so short-staffed.”

Testamark added that video visitation will also reduce the scourge of contraband, which, particularly at the Golden Grove facility on St. Croix, has become a “major problem” and a compliance issue with the federal consent decree placed on the bureau.

“The less personal visits at a facility, the less the likelihood that contraband will be introduced,” Testamark said.

Video visits can be scheduled via phone and last roughly 45-60 minutes.

Testamark said no tax dollars will be spent on the new technology and that VendEngine will provide and install the service at no cost to the government.

The only charge will come via the program’s money transfer component.

This, according to Testamark, involves ATM-like kiosks at the jail and around the community, where family and friends in the Virgin Islands can send money to an inmate’s commissary account at an off-island facility.

Once the inmate is released, any remaining funds on their commissary account are transferred onto a Mastercard in his or her name, which can then be used anywhere.

VendEngine will charge $3 per money transfer.

“Currently, in order for us to accept money for an inmate, people have to go to the Post Office and buy a money order and then mail it in,” Testamark said. “With the new process, you won’t have to go to the Post Office. You can bring your cash and deposit it right into the kiosk, just like an ATM machine, and it will automatically go to the inmate account after you enter their inmate number.”

Testamark described the VendEngine program as “desperately needed,” and in keeping with her leadership ethos to better serve the territory’s inmates.

After nearly 30 years serving at the Miami-Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, Testamark said she was committed to advancing the territory’s correctional facilities, which, for years, have languished under deteriorating structures, limited staff and consent decrees.

Indeed, it was one of her former Florida colleagues who introduced her to the VendEngine program.

“When he heard I was in the Virgin Islands and I told him about some of our challenges, he said this was a perfect opportunity for the program,” Testamark said. “Coming here, I knew it was one of things I wanted to change.”

Testamark said she hopes to move away completely from person-to-person visits, as is the case in many mainland facilities. But, she added, special visits will continue on a case-by-case basis for local families.

“I’m not close-minded to say we won’t have visits at all,” she said.

©2019 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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