When Thomas Myers was arrested in early September, he had just allegedly broken into his childhood home and rummaged through a jewelry box.
Myers’ legal trouble began about the same time he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1990s, according to Joni Clark, his sister. Clark said her brother is a caring, artistic person who hopes to one day create a program to take care of pets who are stranded when their owner goes to jail.
But he’s also struggled to stay on his medication.
“He’s not completely normal even when he’s on his medication, but he’s better,” Clark said. “The struggle has always been keeping him on it.”
Myers has been in the Tulsa Jail for nearly two months, and his stay there has left Clark in a form of limbo, caught up in new jail visitation regulations.
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office announced earlier this year new rules surrounding who would be allowed to visit jail inmates, as well as what days those people would be allowed to visit. As the second-largest county jail in Oklahoma, jail officials said the visitation schedule had grown too unwieldy and costly.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“I was completely unable to talk to him,”Joni Clark said. “I was very concerned for his well-being.[/perfectpullquote]
The answer? Narrow the visitation days from six to two, trim down the amount of people who could conduct in-person visits and push everyone else to use a video visitation system at a cost of 50 cents per minute.
Earlier this year the sheriff’s office requested information from other county jails across the state on how their visitation scheduling was handled. After talking to more than a dozen other jails, TCSO announced a slimmed-down visitation schedule, from six days each week to only two.
Given that the Tulsa Jail is the second-largest county jail in the state (behind only the Oklahoma County Jail,) all the responses to the request came from jails with much smaller populations, and thus much more manageable visitations.
Seven of the 18 jails who responded have fewer than 100 inmates, while seven others hold between 100 to 200 inmates.
Roger Mills County, which sits west of Oklahoma City next to the Texas panhandle, was the smallest jail to respond. Though it can hold 28 inmates, a jail spokesman told The Frontier they had only nine or 10 on any given day.
And while the jail previously had a very liberal policy in terms of who could visit, the new rules were much more strict. Under the new rules, in-person visits were only available to “immediate” family members — terminology that only legally refers to parents and adult children.
“Our parents have passed,” Clark told The Frontier in an interview. “(My brother) has an adult son, but he lives in Broken Arrow and doesn’t have a car.”
Clark eventually received two letters from her brother in late October, in which he said he was taking medication and “feeling better.” He urged her to find his dog, Gus.
“Please find him!” Myers wrote. “My heart hurts every moment I think about him.”
But until that first letter, Clark said she worried about her brother every second of every day.
“I was completely unable to talk to him,” she said. “I was very concerned for his well-being. Before I got those letters, I had no idea if something was going wrong with him. And if something had been going wrong, there would have been nothing I could do about it until it was too late.”
With in-person visits nixed, the only option available to Clark was video visitation through HomeWAV. That system is available through an app on your phone — or through computer access — but Clark, who described herself as “not exactly great with technology,” said she found herself intimidated by the process necessary to sign up. And on a strict financial budget, she said she has limited wiggle room when it comes to spending on things that aren’t food or bills.
“There was more than a month probably that I had no idea what was going on with my brother,” she said. “I was completely in the dark.”
Paid visitation rises after changes
When the visitation changes went into effect, they were expected to have a large impact on both the number of people using the HomeWAV service and the amount of money being brought in by the sheriff’s office.
And they did.
When the visitation changes were announced, TCSO spokeswoman Casey Roebuck said the expectation was that HomeWAV usage would “increase once the visitation changes go into effect. But we don’t yet know by how much.”
Data released by the sheriff’s office shows the changes resulted in thousands more uses of the paid HomeWAV system and thousands more dollars raised by the sheriff’s office.
Usage of the free video visitation units in the jail’s lobby plummeted, according to sheriff’s office data — from as many as 161 visits in June to just five total visits in August and 15 in September.
As expected, use of HomeWAV personal computer software and smartphone apps increased. Computer and app use averaged 11,205 uses per month during the three months prior to the change, but skyrocketed to 15,766 uses per month in August and September.
The result was thousands more dollars raised under the new system — TCSO generated $44,360.50 in August and $38,893 in September, compared to $29,933 per month in May, June and July.
However, that dollar figure will likely change moving forward. On Oct. 2, Tulsa County officials agreed to lower the cost of the video calls from 50 cents per minute to only 25 cents per minute. Short video messages (where a family member can leave a video for an inmate to view at a later time) are 50 cents per minute, according to the contract.
It’s unclear what effect the lowered cost of the video calls will have. While the lowered cost would theoretically cut into the system’s profits, it could also encourage more, or lengthier, calls.
October data, which would show the initial effect of the changes, has not yet been released by the sheriff’s office.
Regardless, the changes have likely resulted in a net-positive for the sheriff’s office as it has sought ways to raise revenues and cut costs. The slimmed down visitation schedule not only has pushed potential visitors to use the HomeWAV system, it has also kept them out of the jail whatsoever, resulting in fewer hours in which a deputy must provide security. Roebuck said that prior to the visitation schedule change, the jail was doing upwards of 300 in-person visits per day.