The announcement last month by Tulsa Jail officials that on-site visitation was being reduced from six days each week to two is part of a broader effort across the state from jails to move toward a more lucrative video visitation system.
In a press release publicizing the jail’s new slimmed-down visitation schedule, Tulsa Jail officials touted an “analysis” of the visitation days of more than 40 jails and prisons.
In the announcement, TCSO stated “25 jails and prisons” were analyzed, and only one facility polled “conducted visitation more than two days a week.”
Promoting video visitation over in-person jail visits stands to be a financial boon for a sheriff’s office saddled with financial stress leftover from the former administration. When Sheriff Vic Regalado was elected last year, he immediately set upon finding ways to balance the TCSO budget.
And the visitation changes should help that goal.
According to data released by TCSO, the jail averaged nearly 300 on-site visitors per day during the last three months. It’s unclear how the changes to the in-person visitation schedule will affect those numbers, but it could be dramatic. The jail announced not only that it will erase four days of in-person visits, but also that only “immediate family members” will be allowed to visit inmates.
Previously there were no such restrictions — visitors need have only been at least 14-years old, not appear under the influence and not have been held at the jail within 60 days prior to their visit.
A side-effect of the changes should increase the number of visitors who use the video visitation options offered by the jail through the “HomeWAV” company.
Video visitation systems are on the rise nationwide. Primarily ran through third-party vendors, they offer cost savings for jails, that no longer have to hire detention officers whose primary purpose is to watch over visitation.
They also offer convenience for users who no longer have to travel to the jail to speak to incarcerated loved ones.
But that convenience comes at a price.
For 50 cents a minute, anyone can talk to a Tulsa Jail inmate through a home computer, or a smartphone app. Jail kiosks that offer HomeWAV are free, though rarely used at the moment.
The vast majority of users choose the smartphone app, according to jail data. Of the 34,875 uses of HomeWAV between May 1 and July 31, 33,617 (nearly 97 percent) were through a smartphone.
Those calls raised nearly $90,000 in three months, a figure that could rise once the changes go into effect next week.
“We obviously anticipate the HomeWAV usage will increase once the visitation changes go into effect,” Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck said. “But we don’t yet know by how much.”
Roebuck said TCSO is negotiating to lessen the charge from 50 to 20 cents per minute, though that proposal has not yet gone before the Board of County Commissioners.
Proceeds from use of the video visitation, which could total more than $500,000 a year depending on how much usage increases following the upcoming changes, are placed in the sheriff’s office “cash fee account,” Roebuck said. That account is managed by the sheriff and used at his discretion.
According to the county fiscal office, expenditures from the cash fee account totaled $4.1 million fiscal year 2015 and $5.5 million in 2016. The 2017 fiscal year, which ended in June, saw the sheriff’s office spend $5.1 from that account.
When The Frontier first requested a copy of the analysis TCSO referred to in its initial press release, Roebuck replied that the 19 prisons were not actually analyzed. Roebuck said knowledge of Department of Corrections visitation schedule was something already possessed by new Tulsa Jail administrator David Parker, who spent more than 30 years with DOC.
State prisons can set their own visitation schedules, although most offer visits only on Saturdays, Sundays and state holidays. The Oklahoma State Penitentiary, located in McAlester, says it offers visitation on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Roebuck told The Frontier the analysis of the 25 county jails was actually completed by the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association, a private organization of county sheriffs not beholden to state laws surrounding open records. However, OSA executive director Ray McNair told The Frontier the organization only sent an email out to its members, at the request of Brown, seeking comment on their visitation schedules.
Roebuck then sent The Frontier the email responses received by TCSO following the OSA request.
In those emails, 18 jails — the largest of which is the Grady County jail, which holds only 645 inmates, about 1,300 less than Tulsa County — responded with their visitation schedules. Seven jails have visitation just once a week, while six jails have visitation twice a week.
Roebuck said that a number of jails — TCSO touted 25 as having responded to the survey but only released emails from 18 jails — responded via phone.
Given that the Tulsa Jail is the second-largest county jail in the state (behind only the Oklahoma County Jail,) all the responses to Brown’s request came from jails with much small populations, and thus much more manageable visitations.
Seven of the 18 jails who responded have fewer than 100 inmates, while seven others hold between 100-200 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.
One of the email responses to TCSO’s request was by Jim Gerlach, the executive director of the Grady County Criminal Justice Authority.
Like the Tulsa Jail, Grady County offers a combination of onsite and remote visitation.
“By restricting the availability of onsite visits it pushes the use of remote visitation and eliminates traffic and safety concerns while reducing the possibilities of Contraband in the facility,” Gerlach wrote.