An alternative to bleak jail visits: The video chat

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2016 4:43 PM
An alternative to bleak jail visits: The video chat

NEW YORK (AP) — Visiting an inmate at New York City's remote Riker's Island jail means a long bus ride, intense security screening, hours of waiting in a joyless visitor center and having to abide by rules governing everything from the days you can visit to what you can wear.

Now, city officials hope to give some prisoners' families a chance to shortcut that process by expanding a program that allows people to chat with inmates via video hookup at public libraries across the city.

The Brooklyn Public Library started hosting video visitations in early 2014 at one of its branches as part of its jail program. By next month, the service will be expanded to 22 library branches across the city.

That will be a big help to New Yorkers like Sherelle Benjamin, who began using the Brooklyn library's video conference service to speak with her imprisoned brother, in part because she felt uncomfortable having her 6-year-old son come along.

"At the beginning, I didn't let my son go see his uncle, and it crushed me and it crushed my brother a lot," the 30-year-old assistant teacher said.

During one recent chat, Benjamin sat with her son, Justis James, in a conference room filled with books, colored markers and paper. A large screen contained the image of her 25-year-old brother, Sebastian Benjamin.

As Justis read from a picture book, Sebastian Benjamin chimed in with sound effects. When Justis showed off his dance moves, his uncle cheered.

For Sebastian Benjamin, who's awaiting trial on a murder charge in connection with a Bronx shooting, it's been a blessing.

"I had a close bond with him. I'm missing a lot," the 25-year-old said to a reporter during the chat. "This has been a great thing."

There's no way the small-scale video program could replace physical visits to the jail.

Rikers, an island in the waters between the Bronx and Queens, gets up to 1,500 visitors daily. The library branches are able to offer a handful or two of hour-long video appointments per week.

Still, they are an alternative for people who might otherwise be reluctant to go, like an elderly relative or a parent who's uncomfortable bringing a child.

A trip to Rikers now starts with a bus ride to a security kiosk in Queens, where visitors check in and go through an initial screening. That's followed by another bus ride across a causeway to the jail complex, a pass by drug-sniffing dogs and a walk through a metal detector.

Visitors then wait in a room, sometimes for hours, before they are allowed into the space where they can see prisoners.

Visits are allowed only on certain days of the week, based on the first letter of inmates' last names. There's a dress code, too: no hats or hoods, no jewelry, no spandex leggings and no shorts or skirts that rise more than three inches above the knee.

Video visitation is in use at other prisons and jails across the country, although usually at a cost.

At the Westchester County Department of Corrections facility in the suburbs north of New York City, it costs $10 for a 60-minute remote video visitation, according to the website for Securus Technologies.

Many of the roughly 13,000 inmates on Rikers Island are either awaiting trial, who have yet to be convicted of any crime, or are serving short sentences.

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Follow Deepti Hajela at www.twitter.com/dhajela. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/deepti-hajela.