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Project makes W.Va. jail visits high tech

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.

Cutting down on the physical mail entering state jails should also reduce the amount of contraband inmates receive, Skeens said. Synthetic drugs have become a daily problem in state jails because they are virtually undetectable.

"Each time we figure out what the recipe is and how to detect it, they change the recipe and we're back to square one," Skeens said.

The kiosks can have other uses, too. Speaking at a state Regional Jail Authority board meeting earlier this week, Skeens said the jail could stop publishing inmate handbooks and instead show orientation videos on the kiosks.

The viewing screens also would allow jails to allow "virtual visitations," where friends and family members could have video chats with prisoners for $1 a minute.

This function will come with facial recognition software to blur out anything that isn't a face.

"It will not allow any other body parts," Skeens said.

Skeens said video visitations free up staff members, since they don't have to escort inmates to and from visitation rooms.

While Central Regional Jail inmates will be able to use Lockdown come Oct. 1, the program is slated to be in all state jails by the end of the year.

State jails also plan to install hundreds of cameras over the next few years in an attempt to keep a better watch of inmates and staff members.

Workers recently installed more than 100 cameras at Tygart Valley Regional Jail in Elkins, allowing administrators to see almost every square inch of the facility, including recreation areas, the kitchen and dining rooms, guard towers and cell blocks.

Jail administrator Scott Villars said the cameras had an almost immediate effect on inmates' - and correctional officers' - behavior.

"They know someone's watching or at least can come back and watch," he said.

Videos are kept for 60 days on Tygart Valley's digital video recorders and then are transferred to a central server at the Regional Jail Authority's office in Charleston. Villars said the ultimate goal is to have two years of recordings on file.

The system is not run through the Internet but can be accessed through a secure website. Delong said eventually he will be able to see any part of any state jail just sitting in his office.

Installing the cameras took three months to complete at Tygart Valley and cost $556,000. Joe Delong, Regional Jail Authority executive director, said he does not expect installations at other jails will cost that much as workers work out kinks in the process.

Delong is still working out details of a contract to expand the camera system to the state's other nine jails. They plan to install cameras at two jails at a time, beginning with Southern Regional Jail in Beckley and Southwestern Regional Jail in Logan, and then working their way north.

The Regional Jail Authority selected Tygart Valley to kick off the camera program because it has the highest number of female inmates. Speaking to the Daily Mail last month, Delong credited the cameras with cutting down the numbers of sexual misconduct cases reported at the jail.

"I think we're getting much, much better in creating a more safe and secure environment," he said at the time.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

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