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Jail gets new kind of remote control

Feb 14, 2013


For years, Sheriff’s Capt. Ron Huber has worried about having to manage the county jail without being able to control its television system.

The final straw came last fall, when Comcast went all digital. That meant Huber went from little control to no control over the video content inmates can access.

“We used to block bad channels, but inmates were able to figure out how to hack them, so you’d come around the corner and they’d be watching inappropriate programming,” Huber said.

Now, he can’t even do that. Hovering around light blue powder-coated tables in their dark blue prison garb, they can watch whatever signals Comcast supplies over incoming cable.

But all that will change soon.

For most people, television is, first and foremost, an engine of entertainment. But for jail managers, it’s an important tool. 

When county commissioners approved a $28,700 jail television contract the other day, it raised eyebrows among people who think one thing you shouldn’t have in jail is public assistance with the task of whiling away the hours. However, Huber said that’s not what he’s buying from Dolphinio Business Services.

What the county is buying, he said, is a way to control and optimize the television fare inmates watch. The new system will allow the staff to deliver information in an efficient, consistent and repetitive manner, he said.

What’s more, while the county is putting up $11,700 from its jail improvement fund, the inmates are adding $17,000 from an inmate trust account. Likewise, the annual maintenance cost of $4,800 wille be split among the jail fund and an inmate commissary fund. So it’s not a one-sided project.

After more than a decade of studying ways jails try to manage inmate television viewing, Huber finally discovered what he’d been looking for in his own backyard — the Lincoln County Jail in Newport. 

“I knew this is what I wanted,” he said. “This is what we need.”

When the system goes live in a couple of weeks, the staff will not only be able to customize programing for the jail as a whole, but even for individual cellblocks, most of which are equipped with a big-screen set for group viewing.

The system relies on a cloud-based central server for storage and delivery of content. And each feed can be individually tailored, so the program may differ from one cell block to another, and among the common areas used for booking and waiting.

In addition, the system allows prison authorities to include educational fare on topics like blood-borne pathogens, rape and assault prevention and other areas of concern.

“The Prison Rape Elimination Act is a pretty big deal,” Huber noted. “If we mess up, the county loses all of its federal money. Really. All of it.”

With the new system, he said, the county can feed in fare designed to address the issue.

The county can also keep driving home the do and don’t rules of jail life. Huber said inmates who arrive stressed, intoxicated or overwhelmed don’t pay too much attention, so repetition is needed to get good compliance.

Finally, he said the system offers closed-captioning and dual-language options, thus helping serve the needs of the hearing or language impaired.

“We have the whole spectrum in here from shoplifters to alleged murderers,” Huber said. And work, craft, recreation and hobby opportunities are much more limited in county jails than they are at state prisons, so television is a big deal that gets avid attention. 

“TV in the jail is pretty important, as far as behavior management goes,” he said. The staff treats it as a reward rather than a right, thus making it a powerful incentive, and the new system will augment that ability immensely. 

“It’s a prime example of the positive power of peer pressure,” he said. “They will discipline themselves.

“If TV privileges are lost one day, I can all but guarantee they won’t be the next day. It’s all they have — TV, newspapers, cards and 24 hours to pass a day.”

In addition to being an effective risk management tool that reduces exposure to liability, Sheriff Jack Crabtree said it was also worth noting the business perspective to the upgrade.

The county rents 10 beds a day to Benton County, a service netting the county approximately $23,000 a month.

“The benefit of the new system is not to have them watching Dukes of Hazzard, but rather to educate inmates, and to maintain a safe, secure facility,” Crabtree said. “And, it helps us remain competitive because there are other jails that would like to rent beds out and we want to keep that substantial revenue stream here.”

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