The Bexar County Jail is preparing to change its inmate visiting system from face-to-face visitation to electronic encounters.
The county is investing about $4 million in the system that officials say will improve security, cut down on overtime hours for guards, and help family members visit their loved ones more often.
At the Bexar County Jail on Comal Street, hundreds of inmates have to be shuffled from housing units to special visitation areas where just 18 of them at a time can sit in a face-to-face meeting with their visitor.
Deputy Chief Raul Banasco said wives, mothers, and children show up early in the day to get a pass to see their loved ones behind bars, and after that, they wait.
"We're in San Antonio. It gets very hot, and sometimes it takes family members and friends five to eight hours, waiting for a 20-minute visit," Banasco said.
There is no physical contact. The visitors can only see inmates through a glass window and talk to them over a phone receiver. Banasco said it’s an antiquated system, and he believes the video technology will help family members visit with inmates more often.
"That's a lot of time away from work. And sometimes in the heat or inclement weather, it's a challenge, with limited space, and you have the kids out there," Banasco said. "So sometimes what happens is sometimes those children don't visit or their families don't visit as much because it's a full-time day for them to come for 20 minutes."
Video visits in the future will come from an air-conditioned building down the street from the jail on Comal Street, where 80 to 90 visits can occur at one time.
Visitors can register online from their home, appear at the Visitation Center at the appointed time, and there won’t be hours of wait time. Inmates will sit at a monitor inside their own housing units, which further saves times by reducing the need to move inmates around the jail.
At least one attorney loves the idea.
"It's an enormous time saver," said criminal defense attorney Suzanne Kramer.
It's a cost-saver as well. Kramer said all that wait-time in the jail for lawyers to see their clients means the clock is ticking on the indigent funds paid by the county to court-appointed attorneys.
"You've got a good 30-45-minute to an hour wait, waiting for them to get the defendant down into the visitation room. And that's nothing against the county -- they're just that busy," Kramer said.
Video visitation units installed at the county courthouse in 2011 for attorneys' use has been saving taxpayer dollars. And it's private.
"When it first started, a lot of us were concerned about the privilege issue," Kramer said. "We were concerned about being in a room with other people around, and would others be able to hear privileged information. But I did it a few times and it is really is (protected). You're in a room by yourself and there's nobody on the other side - it's just your client. I think privilege is protected."
The technology has been criticized by family members who say even if there’s a glass between them, seeing them in person is better.
But it is the way many jails have been able to reduce costs while increasing visitation opportunities. Benasco said the jail can quadruple the number of visits with the video system, and he wants to see Bexar County exceed the two visits a week required by the state.
"And that's the goal. One of the things with video visitation is, you always meet your state standards in every state, and you'll see in time, as people get used to the system, there will be more opportunities to get a third visit in.
"It is technology. It's the way of the future," Benasco said. "And I can tell you: what you'll see is more individuals inclined to schedule visits knowing they only have to take out an hour of time to drive over and get registered versus eight hours."
Benasco likes the system for security reasons. It reduces the amount of contraband coming into the jail. Smart software can prevent certain problems associated with inappropriate communication.
The target date for installation of video visitation is mid to late 2015.