Family and friends of Hamilton County Jail inmates often line up daily with hundreds of others for the chance to visit their loved ones, according to Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Allen Branum.
That takes a lot of officers, a lot of time and ultimately a lot of money.
But online video visitation could eliminate those costs, increase officer and inmate safety and reduce the inconvenience to residents, Branum said. Instead of crowding the jail lobby, residents could see their loved ones from home -- for 60 cents a minute.
Branum and other sheriff's department staff pitched the video visitation plan Friday during a meeting of the commission's Security and Correction Committee.
They are asking commissioners to agree to a plan with EdgeAccess, a Tampa, Fla.-based company, that would allow them to install video monitors throughout the jail and in the lobby and connect that system to the Internet, so people at home could sign on and video chat with inmates.
It will still be free to visit inmates at the jail, but those who wished to video chat from home would pay 60 cents a minute.
"Our main goal is the safety of the inmates and the officers. Each floor will have a system, so prisoner movement will be reduced," Branum said. "Sometimes if we are short of manpower, we have to shut down programs for a day, like recreation or classes, if we have visitation."
The sheriff's office, along with the county purchasing department, solicited bids for the project in August. Nine companies showed up for a purchasing meeting with the county, but only four sent bids, he said.
Ultimately, EdgeAccess, was the best buy for the county -- because there is no buying anything.
According to bid documents, the company would supply and install all the cameras, computers, wires and other equipment, and the county would pay nothing on the front end. But the company would get to keep the first $42,000 of revenue generated by the system and 70 percent of any additional revenue. The county would get 30 percent.
The company expects the system to generate nearly $60,000 in the first year, then nearly doubling that number annually over the next three years of the five-year agreement.
Other companies wanted money on the front end, wanted to lease the machines to the county or had a lesser revenue split, Branum said. In fact, the second-best bidder wanted to keep the first two years of revenue before splitting with the county.
In return, the county would get 72 shatterproof video terminals. Fifty-eight of those would be installed in cells, making large-scale prisoner movement less of an issue. Another 10 would be installed in the current visitation area for people who still want to come to the jail.
In addition, there would be four mobile stations that could be brought to inmates who were in the hospital wing or were otherwise isolated.
If the county decides not to extend the contract, the equipment stays with the county, Branum said.
Commissioner Marty Haynes, who is chairman of the committee, said the plan seems like a good idea and a resolution accepting it would appear on Thursday's regular agenda.
Commissioners Greg Beck and Joe Graham also thought it was a good move, although Beck questioned why the county couldn't install and run a video conferencing system on its own.
The estimated cost of equipment and installation would be $300,000 to the company.
"Anybody who's going to invest $300,000 into a project -- there's got to be a gold mine somewhere," Beck said. "Don't we have people smart enough to do this?"
Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the county's Silverdale Detention Facility, already does video visitation for inmates, but the system is on a closed circuit and run by the county information technology department.
Barbara Payne, director of Hamilton County Corrections, said that system is not connected to the Internet, so inmates can only speak with people who come to the facility. But the reduction in manpower needed for visitation was immediate.
"When we installed [video monitors at Silverdale] it cut our manpower at visitation by seven to one," Payne said.
Silverdale is not included in the video conferencing plan.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon @timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.
Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...