Video visitation kiosk

A video visitation kiosk (via the web site of Coos County, New Hampshire)

Inmates at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna will no longer be able to receive in-person visits from relatives and friends beginning Oct. 10, when the facility will begin a "video visitation" program similar to one put in place at New Orleans' lockup a couple of years ago.

Newly installed Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joseph Lopinto said Wednesday that one major benefit of eliminating in-person visits at the jail is ending the possibility of visitors giving contraband to inmates.

But some lawyers who work with people accused of crimes countered that face-to-face visitation makes it easier for inmates to rejoin their loved ones' lives after their release, and a video-only model complicates that.

It is becoming more common for correctional facilities across the country to use video technology similar to Skype to let inmates communicate with loved ones, though it is less common for jails to do away with all in-person visits as a result.

Lopinto's statement said contraband concerns weren't the only reason for his decision. Both types of visits require monitoring, but fewer staffers can keep track of more video feeds than if they have to maintain watch over in-person visits, he said.

Lopinto also touted a potential increase in the availability of inmates to their loved ones. In-person visits have been available only for two-hour blocks, once a week, depending on inmates' cell assignment.

Now, though, friends and relatives will be able to use computers or cellphones to connect with inmates nearly 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Lopinto's statement envisioned scenarios where inmates could easily speak with loved ones who are attending family celebrations or with those who live outside the New Orleans area.

But using the Securus video visitation service remotely won't be free. The Sheriff's Office said 20-minute sessions will cost nearly $13.

That price may discourage many families from using the remote service, said attorney Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans.

Schwartzmann as well as local defense attorneys Jay Daniels and Craig Mordock all said there is ample research showing that incarcerated people who have access to their loved ones while in jail have an easier time reconnecting with them after they're released, which in turns helps them avoid returning to a life of crime.

All three said they were concerned about largely removing personal contact with the outside world from a facility that primarily houses people who are awaiting trial but have not been convicted of any wrongdoing.

"People who are simply detained need access to family members," Mordock said. "And in-person visitation is radically different than doing a Skype session."

Other criminal justice watchdogs caution that the video connections can be glitchy.

The Sheriff's Office said free video visitation sessions will be available at the agency's new visitation center at 1425 Walkertown Way in Marrero. Each inmate will be allowed one visit a week at the visitation center and can arrange three additional visits a day on the remote service.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office has been exclusively using video visitation since the Orleans Justice Center in Mid-City opened in September 2015, said the agency's general counsel, Blake Arcuri. Inmates' loved ones must go to a visitation center that is open six days a week to conduct video sessions.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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