JEFFERSON — Because visitations in Texas prisons have been suspended since Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus disaster declaration, Marion County Commissioners Court, this week, gave Interim Sheriff David Capps the green light to install kiosks in inmates’ cells for video chatting.

“The sheriff approached me. We do the communications system for the jail now,” said Douglas Morgan with NCIC Inmate Communications Inc., out of Longview.

“Right now, if you’re not aware of it, the Jail Commission has canceled all visitation onsite for inmates, so inmates aren’t even visiting families, friends, all that good stuff,” Morgan explained to the commissioners court. “So what we’re looking to do is bring in and put kiosks on the wall in each inmate’s cell.”

Morgan said his company is requesting a two-year extension on their contract, in order to do that.

“The inmates can be able to visit their family through that,” he said.

Morgan said the kiosk system will also allow jail staff to convert inmates’ grievances and medical requests to paperless files, for instance.

“When the inmate enters their grievance request, whatever it is the sheriff puts on there, onto the kiosk, and then the jail staff will actually be able to enter in those requests from their computer,” Morgan explained.

Morgan said there is a revenue share associated with the kiosk video chat system.

“It costs 36 cents a minute for the inmate to visit with their family back and forth on video visit,” he said. “And the county gets a commission on that, so a 25 percent commission in it.

“There’s no cost to the county,” he added.

Morgan said they’re looking at installing about 10 units, which will cost about $1,200 per unit.

“That’s why we’re asking for the extension of the contract to help us recoup that amount of money on that,” he said.

County Judge Leward LaFleur explained that with the contract extension, the company won’t be out the expense of the installation.

“It ensures they make their investment back,” he said.

In addition to video calls, the system also allows for messaging, which will cost the user 25 cents per message and 35 cents per picture.

“Right now they’re sending letters back and forth to mom and dad, so a message is they can type a little letter, it’s like a text almost; it’s 25 cents for the message,” Morgan explained.

“The inmate can’t send a picture, but like right now the jail receives the picture in the mail so the family can send a picture across the kiosk, so a message is 25 cents, a picture is 35 cents,” he added.

He said the total cost of 60 cents to send a message along with a picture is more cost-efficient than if an inmate mailed a letter.

“It’s actually cheaper to do it that way because you got a stamp that’s 50 something cents, then the letter and the time (are factored in),” Morgan said. But “this actually comes through immediately.

“The jail staff can look at it, and they can approve all pictures and stuff before they go through,” he added. “It’s not like it’s just a blind thing where anything can get through. They actually sit there and approve it before it goes through just like they would in the mail.”

Sheriff Capps echoed his sentiments.

“Just like we do now with the telephones…It’s all computerized. It’s all recorded, so if we want to go back and view it for court or other situations, we can,” said Capps.

Morgan said if the jail administration sees that someone has violated the rules then the sheriff can restrict the inmate and their family from having access to their account.

“He can block a family member or inmate,” said Morgan.

Morgan said the kiosk video visit system will keep the county jail ahead of the curve when it comes to adjusting to changes due to the pandemic.

“The governor has already cancelled all visitation and stuff,” he said. “This is getting you guys ahead of the curve, well actually caught up in the curb and even ahead a little bit. You’ve got it in several other counties around you. Gregg County is one of them. We’re getting ready to do Morris County and Upshur County.”