Regional jail looks to bridge the communication gap for inmates and their families

Staff writer

For Allison Bellamy, checking in on her newborn son isn’t as easy as listening for crying on a baby monitor.

Bellamy is an inmate at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail. At first, the 31-year-old Poquoson woman had to content herself with seeing her months-old son during visits at the jail, but now she can see him through the jail’s newest communication system: Tablet video conferencing.

On April 1, the jail flipped a switch and turned on dozens of tablet computers for inmates in all of its housing units, according to jail superintendent Tony Pham.

“The key component that a lot of these inmates use, especially parents, is the video visit,” Pham said.

The devices help bridge the gap between families and inmates when incarceration means staying within the confines of the jail’s concrete walls, Pham said.

As Mothers’ Day approaches, the jail negotiated with its suppliers to provide every inmate a free five-minute video call home using the tablets, according to jail spokeswoman Sara Mahayni.

“The intention is to give all VPRJ inmates the opportunity to connect with their families over the Mother’s Day weekend,” Mahayni said.

Normally, it costs inmates 25 cents a minute to video call home, Pham said. The replacement cost on the 61 tablets is $400 each.

The tablets also allow inmates to send emails and photographs. For example, one father recently received a photograph of his son taken at Christmas. The little boy’s short-cropped brown hair and gleaming smile leap from the image. It’s a photograph that otherwise would have needed to be printed out and mailed to him at the jail.

“Bellamy’s one of them, being able to see a newborn child,” Pham said. “Those were very, very important moments that I thought brought real value to inmates.”

However it takes place, all communications between inmates and the outside world are monitored and screened for illicit content or threatening language. Certain keywords are monitored, including the word “kill.”

“You want to maintain a pragmatic degree of safety,” Pham said. “You don’t want (inmates) to plan out (a crime), but you do want them to say ‘hey did you realize that Johnny graduated high school’ and they can send a photo.”

But the handheld tablets can do more than just help inmates communicate with their families.

When the tablets are activated — when each housing unit is not locked down — inmates can submit digital requests for a change in their living conditions and get fast responses, Pham said. Something as simple as an inmate’s desire for a new jumpsuit or a change in the television schedule in a unit can be addressed with a few taps on the screen.

Since they’ve been put into use, the jail has received more than 5,500 requests from its inmates over the tablets, according to Pham. While each of the paper forms would have cost 32 cents each, the digital versions have saved the jail more than $1,500 so far, although the paper versions will remain available as redundancy for inmates who prefer them.

The tablets also make it easier for inmates to send their complaints to jail officials, Pham said. Jail officials are able to respond and investigate Prison Rape Elimination Act complaints more rapidly using the new system.

Pham’s hope is that it helps his correctional officers do their jobs better and offers inmates a strong connection with life outside the jail while maximizing the safety and security of everyone on the inside.

“I was told by an inmate they had family from Alabama driving up once a month to come see them,” Pham said. “There’s a cost associated. They’re going to save money logging on and visiting because of the amount of gas they’re paying (for) and the hotel room they gotta get to come visit, they can put that all on the tablet device.”

Now that inmate will be able to see their family more often and with less hassle, Pham said.

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at srobertsjr@vagazette.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette
79°