The Coconino County Detention Facility’s new video visitation system has opened up new ways for inmates to stay in touch with their loved ones. But more than four months after the jail made the switch to virtual visits, the families of those who have been incarcerated continue to raise concerns about the fees charged by the vendor responsible for the system, Telmate.
“Shelly,” who asked that her last name be withheld, has a family member who has been incarcerated at the Flagstaff jail since March 11. In less than two weeks, she said, she has paid more than $1,500 for phone calls and video visitation.
“It’s ridiculous,” Shelly said.
Shelly does not have a local phone number. She said no one from Telmate or the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, ever warned her she would be charged long-distance fees for calling an inmate from her cell phone.
“They were charging me $6.35 per 15 minutes and then $2.60 afterwards per minute,” Shelly said.
She now has to change her phone number to a 928 area code so she can afford to keep in contact with her loved one. She has also been frustrated with the fees Telmate charges her to put money into the accounts her relative had to use to make phone calls, schedule visits and buy items from the jail’s commissary.
“Every time I put something in (his accounts), they find something to deduct from whatever I put in there,” Shelly said.
Paulette Myers also had a relative in the jail recently. She said no one sent her any information about the video visitation system when her family member was booked in January. She tried to set up a prepaid account online, but found the Telmate website confusing. While she waited weeks for word on whether she could do a video visitation, she decided to help her loved one by depositing money into her inmate trust account so she could at least buy better tampons and shampoo at the jail’s commissary. She was shocked when Telmate — which also handles all deposits into inmates’ accounts — charged her both a transaction fee and a convenience fee to deposit the money.
“To give her $25 cost me $7,” Myers said. “It just really made me mad that I had to pay them money to give her money.”
After her family member was released from jail this past week, she found out Telmate would charge her a fee to retrieve the extra money she deposited that had not been used.
Myers said the apparent focus on generating a profit reminded her of something that would happen in Maricopa County, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced in December that the company Securus was installing a new jail video visitation system that would bring in $1.1 million over the next five years.
“We do not need to be like Arpaio,” Myers said.
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Jail Support Operations Lt. Matthew Figueroa said Coconino County Detention Facility staff switched to video visitation for different reasons than Arpaio.
“His highlight about going to that (video visitation system) is the fact that they’re going to make money,” Figueroa said. “That’s just never been our thought process when we started entering these different types of new technology into the facility.”
Until this past fall, inmates at the Coconino County jail were allowed two free, 30-minute visits from friends and family members per week. Although those visits were face-to-face in the visitation booths in the inmates’ housing units, a visitor and inmate would be separated by a pane of glass, and would have to communicate over the jail’s phone system. Figueroa said the staff wanted to reduce the frequency with which inmates had to be moved around the facility and wanted to open up more ways for inmates to have contact with their loved ones, so they replaced the two in-person visits with unlimited video visits, which can be done from the jail lobby or remotely via the Internet.
“We definitely have family and friends out there that have no problem paying because they know they can visit a lot more often than the two regular glass visits that we used to do in the past,” Figueroa said.
Because the jail already had a good relationship with Telmate, which managed the phone system, it signed a five-year contract with that company to create the video visitation system.
“As far as we can see, everything is working as we had hoped,” Figueroa said.
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At first, the jail allowed each inmate two free video visits per week.
As of March 1, that was cut in half.
Inmates are now allowed one free, 30-minute visit per week with family and friends. The visitor must use one of the six Telmate stations in the jail lobby for the free visit, which must be scheduled by the inmate, not the visitor. But Figueroa said there is an upside.
“It has been reduced,” Figueroa said. “On the flip side of that, what we negotiated with the vendor is we reduced the cost of the remote visit.”
It used to cost friends and family $15 per 30-minute remote visit. Under the new deal between Telmate and the jail, a remote visit now costs $10.50. Visits from the Flagstaff or Page jail lobbies cost $7.50. Figueroa said the staff at the jail was excited to be able to make remote visits more affordable.
“We’re hoping that is going to encourage a lot more people to use the system remotely, especially when you’re trying to come in with your kids,” Figueroa said. “If there’s an opportunity to not have to bring kids to the jail to visit and they feel more comfortable sitting in their living room and doing that visit, then perfect. What we want is to keep that connection with (the inmate’s) family and friends in jail, but to have it more in a comfortable setting.”
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Attorneys can still visit with inmates in person under special circumstances, such as when the inmate has to sign a plea agreement. Attorneys and other professionals, such as clergy and Victim/Witness Services, can also use a private booth in the jail to visit with inmates over the video visitation system without those calls being recorded. All other visitations are recorded by Telmate and monitored by jail staff. In addition, Telmate provides free remote visits to the Coconino County Public Defender and Legal Defender’s offices. All other attorneys have to pay for remote visits.
Telmate agreed to provide all the equipment and monitoring at no cost to the jail in exchange for 75 percent of the money people pay for video visitations. After Telmate recoups the cost of installing the roughly 50 visitation stations that are now inside the jail, it will split the proceeds with the Sheriff’s Office 50/50. Figueroa said video visitation has brought the jail about $300 per month since the system went live Oct. 29, 2013. All that money, he said, has gone directly into the jail’s Inmate Welfare Fund to be used for equipment and other items that benefit the inmates.
“We clearly did not do this at all for the money,” Figueroa said. “We did this to give families and friends another alternative to visit.”
Meanwhile, Telmate has been bringing in around $1,000 per month in video visitation revenues alone.
“That’ll increase, especially with the reduction in the cost for remote visits and as everybody gets used to the system,” Figueroa said. “The usage is definitely going to go up. That’s what Telmate is hoping to be able to make their money back on.”
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In addition to video visitation revenues, Telmate continues to make money by charging $2.75 per 15 minutes for phone calls between inmates and their loved ones. It also charges friends and family money every time they purchase video visitation time, or put money into an inmate’s phone, visitation or trust account using Telmate’s website, customer service phone line or kiosk in the jail lobby.
For instance, to make a deposit over the phone using a credit card, Figueroa said, Telmate charges a 9 percent convenience fee, plus a $1 transaction fee. It is even more expensive to make a deposit at the jail lobby kiosk, where friends and family members have to pay a 9 percent convenience fee and a $5.95 transaction fee if they pay with plastic. The cheapest option is to deposit cash at the jail kiosk, which only costs a $2.95 transaction fee.
The jail does not get a cut of those revenues. Instead, they go to pay Telmate’s staff and banking fees.
“It’s just like any ATM fees that are associated with us having to use ATMs — there’s convenience fees, there’s service charges,” Figueroa said. “We get none of those fees. That goes to Telmate because of the fees that they’re charged with the banks and the convenience fees for what they pay to have somebody go to the kiosk and empty it out.”
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Figueroa said Telmate’s prices are competitive compared to other video visitation providers. He pointed out that there are video visitation vendors who charge $30 to $40 per visit.
He also said the services Telmate provides are worth the cost. For instance, it recently provided the jail with 10 free Android tablets and is scheduled to deliver 10 more that inmates can use to surf the Internet, read books, check their email and play games. Soon, he said, they will be able to use the tablets for educational programming and video visitation, as well.
Shelly disagreed about the value of Telmate. She said the video visitation system goes down frequently. Visitors who miss their scheduled visits due to problems with the Telmate system have to either wait around for it to get fixed or lose the money they paid for the visit because they can not get a refund.
“The first day I was here, it shut down for the whole day,” Shelly said. “I sat here the whole day until 7:30 in the evening, when I got my visitation.”
She had been there since
Shelly also said she has never received much help from Telmate’s customer service line or the jail staff. Instead, they point the finger at each other. She said she feels particularly bad for people who do not speak English or are simply unfamiliar with Telmate.
“The other day, they had this elderly lady in here,” Shelly said. “She wanted to visit her grandson. She didn’t understand that they were telling her he didn’t have $7.50 to put up for her visitation, so he kept denying (her visitation requests). They weren’t telling her what was going on, so she said, ‘I’ll wait around.’ She sat here the whole day. I explained it to her and she said, ‘Why didn’t they just tell me that?’ It’s heartbreaking.”
Myers said she, personally, missed out on talking to her loved one because the Telmate system was too difficult to navigate and customer service gave her the runaround. She discussed it with her relative after the fact. Her relative told her that although the jail staff treats the inmates “really well,” they do not get enough contact with their families and friends.
“She says it’s hell,” Myers said. “Nobody in there has any contact with their loved ones at all. Everybody is sitting in there feeling like nobody cares about them because this Telmate system is (expletive). Maybe they’re sitting there and just that one day, they need someone to say ‘I love you,’ but they can’t get through.”
She said that is not acceptable.
“I know the county is trying to save money, but somewhere along the way, they lost their humanity,” Myers said.
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Figueroa acknowledged there have been growing pains, but insisted the new video visitation system is working well.
“Actually, a lot of the family and friends seem to be getting comfortable with the system and they’re starting to use it more off-site,” Figueroa said.
For now, he said, it is too early to judge the success of the jail’s switch to video visitation.
“We’re really looking at that one-year anniversary to see how everything is playing out,” Figueroa said. “We’re hoping that’s just going to become the norm to the family and friends that are using it. It’s going to become the norm for professional visitors, such as attorneys to use it. With our population basically changing all the time, after the first year, that’s just all that the inmates are going to know.”
In the meantime, he recommends that visitors who are new to the Telmate system go on the company’s website to view the video tutorials there and read about the video visitation system, or call Telmate’s customer service line. Visitors using the system from the jail for the first time are encouraged to arrive at least 15 minutes early so they can set up their Telmate pin numbers and profiles.
Michelle McManimon can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2261.
How to use Telmate
Inmates’ attorneys, friends and family members can create a Telmate account at the Telmate kiosk in the jail lobby, or online at www.gettingout.com.
To use Telmate’s video visitation system remotely, a visitor’s computer must have the following:
— A webcam, microphone and speakers
— Internet Explorer 7, 8 or 9; Firefox 7, 8 or 9; or Safari 4 or 5
— The current Adobe Flash version, which can be found at http://get.adobe.com/flashplayer/
— A high-speed Internet connection (DSL or cable only)
Customer Service Support:
866-516-0115, option 5.
Visitation Schedule and Fees:
— 8-11:30 a.m., 12:30-4:30 p.m., 5:30-6:30 p.m. and 7-10 p.m., seven days a week
— Inmates will receive 1 free local visit a week
Additional Local Visits:
— $7.50 for 30 minutes.
— $10.50 for 30 minutes