Calhoun County jail adding Internet videoconferencing for lawyers and inmates

The Calhoun County Sheriff's Office lets inmates talk with their loved ones using Internet webcams in visitation rooms.

Those inmates will soon be able to use the same technology to discuss their cases with lawyers.

"To allow inmates to visit via the Internet with their families, that's a convenience for their families," Sheriff Larry Amerson said.

"They don't have to drive here.{} A lot of people live far away or they may be invalids, or may have small children they don't want to bring to that environment."

There are 10 booths for visitors to talk to inmates.{} Four have traditional glass windows with telephones, while six have small cameras and video screens.

"We've been doing that for some time.{} It's proved successful," Amerson said.

The sheriff said the next logical step is to extend that access to attorneys, who currently have access to three rooms at the Calhoun County jail where they can meet with their clients.

The president of the Calhoun-Cleburne Bar Association, David Alexander, said there are sometimes problems visiting inmates due to timing issues.

"There's a small amount of time to visit the inmates," Alexander said.

"Before feeding, after feeding.{} Anytime there's a security issue, if they're on lockdown, we can't get in, and a lot of judges want to know why we've not met with our clients, so we're looking forward to getting online."

The video conference technology is provided by Telmate, which specializes in video visitation at jails.{} Sheriff Amerson demonstrated the system to members of the bar association Thursday.

Corrections officer Judson Blewster sat in front of the wall-mounted Telmate system in a visitation room at the jail.{} The attorneys and the sheriff were at the courthouse.{} They used a laptop signed into Telmate's website and talked to Blewster through the videochat.

"All of the attorneys that I've spoken to are really excited this is happening," attorney Jennifer Argo said.{} "I think it's going to save everyone a lot of time and the state some money."

Argo said she will have more convenient access to clients when she can schedule an appointment and then open her laptop at her office.

The sheriff said attorneys should be able to use iPads or smartphones by the end of the year.{} That is a big change to the traditional trip to the jail.

"Even attorneys who are officers of the court (prosecutors), if they come to our physical facility, they have to checked, they have to be logged in," Amerson said.

"We have to get them a visitation room.{} We have to go get the inmate and move them there, the visit happens, we have to put the inmate back, we have to search the inmate, we have to make sure that nothing came in or went out that was inappropriate."

That requires staff for inspection, but an inmate going to a video visitation room does not need to be searched since there is no physical interaction with the attorney.

The teleconferencing also means there does not need to be a guard to monitor the safety of the attorney.{} Guards currently watch attorney-client meetings through a video camera in the room, although those meetings are not recorded and there is no audio to protect attorney-client privilege.

Bar association president Alexander said there are times when lawyers represent inmates who have issues with anger or instability, and this can make the attorneys feel safer.

"We're looking forward to being able to get online.{} We can schedule it beforehand meet with our inmates, safer environments, safer for us, safer for the deputies there that bring the inmates to us.{} So we're looking forward to this advanced technology here in Calhoun County," Alexander said.

There are some other jails that have video visitation, including Cullman and Etowah County, but Sheriff Amerson said Calhoun County is leading the pack on the Internet side.{} Alexander said other counties will likely look to Calhoun as a test run, which expects to be a success.

Online visits for friends and family cost $12.50 for 20 minutes, to help cover the cost of the equipment.{} Attorneys will receive two free visits with a client every week.{} They can purchase more time if wanted, and in-person visits are free.

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