CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - Sheriff Irwin Carmichael has tweaked a controversial policy that lets Mecklenburg County jail inmates receive visits from family and friends only through video screens.
The video-only policy took effect in October 2016, after the county contracted for video services by Virginia-based GTL. The company paid the system's $1.7 million installation costs but keeps the revenues it earns from paid, online visits.
Video visits save staffing time and are safer, according to the Sheriff's Office, because inmates can view visits in their housing units and don't have to be moved to a central location. But critics – including Carmichael's two Democratic opponents in his reelection bid – say the policy robs inmates of the personal contacts that make them less likely to return to jail after their release.
This week, Carmichael acknowledged community concerns in revising the policy. Inmates may now get two free video visits a week, up from the one weekly visit previously allowed.
The change applies only to visits conducted from the county's Administrative Services Building on Elizabeth Avenue. Unlimited online visits are offered at $12.50 for 25 minutes or $5 for 10 minutes.
Inmates still can't have in-person visitors other than attorneys, clergy or other professionals.
"After hearing some of the concerns from the community and an extensive review of the video visitation program, Sheriff Irwin Carmichael made the decision to implement the additional free visit as an added convenience for family and friends," the office said in a statement. "With the expanded capacity and increased efficiencies from reduced inmate movement, visits can now be scheduled on two different days each week."
A growing number of North Carolina jails have adopted video visits and ended personal visits with inmates. But critics say video systems including Mecklenburg's are rife with technical glitches, and some jurisdictions are acknowledging complaints. Durham County, for example, became the first in North Carolina to launch video visits last October while still allowing personal visits.
Toussaint Romain, a Mecklenburg County assistant public defender and contributing columnist for the Observer, acknowledges the benefits to inmates who are now able to receive paid, online visits from anywhere. But he argues that charging fees for online visits "exploit poor people for profit" and that personal visits should be restored.
"I think in all candor having everyone in jail get a second (free) visit is a huge win," Romain said this week. "The goal is in-person visitation – that would be utopia for clients and for the system – but reducing the for-profit model is also a huge win."
In a written response to Romain last month, Carmichael cited a 26-percent increase in visits in the first year the video-only policy was in effect. Carmichael argued that the cost of visits becomes a factor only if inmates want additional paid, online visits.
"To imply or opine that my decision to implement (video visitation) is an attempt to exploit poor people or to take away one of our most basic human needs is an outright falsehood," the sheriff wrote. "To the contrary, this program has increased access to loved ones while also increasing the safety and security of our facilities, inmates and staff alike at no cost to taxpayers."
Both of Carmichael's Democratic challengers oppose video-only visits.
"It's an absolutely horrific policy to have this day and time for an office that provides direct services to people in confinement," said candidate Antoine Ensley. "Those people need access to visitors, and it needs to be direct visitation with loved ones. It's part of their physical health, their mental health – interaction is just essential."
Ensley, a former sergeant and shift commander with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, said he's heard complaints from community members about the video policy. He said he would explore ending GTL's contract with the county if he's elected sheriff.
Candidate Garry McFadden, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department detective, says he thinks inmates ought to have the right to visit their loved ones in person. Video visitation ought to be an option, he said, but not the only option.
"Human contact is important," he said. "It's important for these men and women to see their loved ones."