Berkshire County Jail's new tech allows inmates to have virtual visits amid coronavirus

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PITTSFIELD — After the COVID-19 pandemic struck in mid-March, inmates at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction were cut off from in-person visitors — a precaution deemed necessary to prevent the spread of the disease in the facility.

But, now, thanks to a partnership between the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office and a Dallas technology company, inmates again can have virtual face-to-face meetings with friends and family members via video.

"We were planning on doing this down the road; this is where the future was headed anyway," said Sheriff Thomas Bowler. "But, COVID-19 just sped things up a little quicker."

Video connect, which went into operation at the jail May 19, is available on seven terminals appropriately spaced for social distancing in the jail's no-contact visitor room, which no longer is being used for in-person visits. It was developed through a partnership that the jail has with Securus Technologies of Dallas, a prison communications firm that serves more than 3,400 public safety, law enforcement and corrections agencies and over 1.2 million incarcerated people across North America.

To schedule a video connect session with an inmate, family and friends have to log on to a Securus account, then host the session with the company's mobile app, which can be used on an Android or iOS mobile device or on a computer or laptop.

Each of the jail's 168 inmates is allowed at least three virtual visits a week — one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

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The jail also is working with Securus to provide this summer SecureView tablets — devices a little bit smaller than iPads that inmates can rent for $5 per month through the company's MakeMine program. These tablets allow inmates to make phone calls with more privacy and provide them access to text messaging, the company said.

The program also includes a job search option; an educational platform; mental health and addiction recovery programming; a law library; e-books; religious resources; and several genres of music. Games also can be accessed through a subscription service.

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All of the new technology is monitored by jail staff for safety reasons, which is standard practice in correctional facilities.

Working with the engineering team from the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, which helped run cable and equipment for the new technology throughout the jail, Securus was able to install the video connect systems within six weeks.

"Across the country, we are seeking a renewed focus on correctional communications," said Russell Roberts, Securus Technologies' chief growth officer. "With the safety and security protocols implemented by facilities, it was critical that this infrastructure was installed and made available quickly."

Deputy Superintendent Brad Little said video connect is especially popular with inmates who have friends and family members located far from the Berkshires, especially with the restrictions that have been imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

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"We have one inmate whose wife is in upstate New York, seven hours away," Little said. "He can visit with her three times a week with this."

An inmate's ability to communicate with friends and family while incarcerated is a major part of the rehabilitation process, according to Bowler. He said inmates at the House of Correction were disappointed when staff told them that in-person visits had to be suspended three months ago.

"You always have to remember that even though we have the worst of the worst inmates, we also have some people in here who made some bad choices and they're relatively good people," Bowler said.

"It's still important for them to have contact with their families. It's all part of the reintegration process to provide them with the skills to be successful in the community. ... Family reintegration is very important when they're coming back into the community."

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-281-2755.


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