CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A new technology initiative could soon put an end to collect calls and snail mail in West Virginia jails.
The project, known as Lockdown, also would allow individuals to "visit" incarcerated loved ones from anywhere with an Internet connection and a webcam.
Part of the program already has been installed in all 10 regional jails.
Mickey Skeens, physical clerk at Central Regional Jail, said this first phase was completed in March and has completely automated jails' handling of inmates' money.
Previously, when an inmate arrived at a jail, an officer would have to count the inmate's money and write a receipt. A second officer would re-count the money and verify the amount. The money would then be added to the inmate's debit account.
"It was a lengthy process," Skeens said.
But with Lockdown, the inmate or an officer just feeds the money into a small machine that automatically tallies the money and deposits it into an account. Think of it as an ATM, but in reverse.
Skeens said the money system also features a web-based software that allows inmates, through their correctional officers, to check their account balance or see a list of recent expenditures.
Loved ones can make deposits to prisoners' accounts at JailATM.com, or by using ATMs located in the jails' front lobbies. Prisoners' money is easily transferred, since all of the jails are linked together.
But that's just the first phase.
By Oct. 1, Skeens said Central Regional Jail would have kiosks installed where inmates can send and receive emails.
Tech Friends, an Arizona-based company, will install the kiosks free of charge to the state. The company will collect fees from inmates, giving a portion to the Regional Jail Authority.
Each message will cost 46 cents, just like a stamped letter.
The kiosks look like a standard ATM, with a keypad and viewing screen. Skeens said they will be mounted on walls inside the prison.
"It's basically like the ones you see in malls or banks," he said.
Software will screen the messages for attachments - no pictures can be transmitted - as well as foul language and keywords that might identify illegal activities.
Skeens said other states have completely replaced traditional mail with email systems like Lockdown, permitting inmates to receive only legal documents through the U.S. Postal Service.
He said Central Regional Jail doesn't plan to make that leap for some time.
"We're going to give it several months of a trial basis to see how it works," he said.