The Dakota County jail is the first in Minnesota to allow inmates to video chat with virtual visitors, who don't have to leave their homes.
Last year, if Michelle Stroman wanted to see her fiancé, Brad Kraemer, she'd have to find the time and the gas money to drive almost 40 miles from her home in Fridley to the Dakota County jail. Then she'd sit in front of one video screen, he'd sit in front of another and they'd visit for their allotted 15 minutes.
Now, thanks to a video visiting system -- similar to Skype -- being tested at the jail in Hastings, she can roll out of bed, hit a few buttons on her computer and, voilà, there's Kraemer on the screen. They can talk while she's fixing dinner. Her daughter, Madeline, can show him her new neon-colored shoes or how she and her mom painted the hallway purple. He can even talk to the family pets, Drama the dog and Dos Caras the cat.
The Dakota County jail is the first in Minnesota to test the video visiting system, but other counties are checking it out and may follow suit.
Attorneys and public defenders, as well as friends and relatives, use the system to talk to clients and inmates, said Todd Westby, general manager of TurnKey Corrections, which developed the system and also operates the canteen and commissary system in the jail.
"It's a lot more convenient," Stroman said.
Inmates also use the kiosks to order items from the commissary, manage their money and file grievances and requests with the jail staff. The kiosks also can be equipped to send and receive e-mail.
The video calls cost the caller 35 cents a minute, as opposed to phone calls, which cost 50 cents a minute. Proceeds from the video visiting system are split between the jail and TurnKey. Westby estimated that since the system went live in January, the jail has received between $2,800 and $3,300 per month.
Sheriff Dave Bellows said that if the jail adopts the system permanently, "we'll be able to pay for our equipment costs in the first year." After that, he said, the money can be used for jail programs.
"I don't put a lot of money into cuisine," Bellows said. "But we do feel strongly about programming. If we're able to address some of the needs of inmates, that has a positive impact that results in them not coming back to us. We're not in the business of repeat business."
Inmates are allowed one 15-minute video chat each hour, but there is no limit to the number of such chats an inmate can get. To avoid having girlfriends or wives disrobe or perform other "inappropriate actions" on camera, all video calls are monitored by TurnKey. So far, only one inmate has been banned from the system, Bellows said.
The jail doesn't plan to discontinue its on-site visiting, Bellows said. Yet Westby said visitor traffic at the jail is down and 44 percent of visitors are already using the video system.
"The biggest benefit is for people with kids," he said. "We have them making cakes at home with the laptop being held up, people talking to their pets. We had one person out in Oregon get married on the system."
Other than in Dakota County and in Oregon, TurnKey operates the video visiting system in jails in Indiana, Idaho and Montana, Westby said. In Minnesota, 36 other counties use the TurnKey kiosks for their jail commissary; other counties said they have seen a demonstration of the video system and are considering it.
The Hennepin County jail uses a service known as ITV that allows inmates to make video appearances at court hearings in other locations, eliminating the need to transport them. Officials from Sherburne County visited the Dakota County jail recently to check out the system. Westby said he is meeting with state prison officials in South Dakota to talk about the system, too.
Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284