In about six months, the Albany County Jail will revolutionize the way some inmates visit with loved ones who are 'on the outside.'
It's a move Sheriff Craig Apple says will limit the amount of contraband coming into the facility, and eventually generate serious cash for the county.
It's all part of a soon-to-be-launched 'Video Visitation' system.
Drugs, weapons and other illegal items considered 'contraband' are an age old problem at the Albany County jail and other correctional facilities across the country.
Sheriff Apple says it's easy to see how big of an issue it is by considering the case of on woman who was brought in on a parole violation back in May.
On a surveillance tape recorded at the jail during processing, she can clearly be seen allegedly trying to smuggle in hundreds of pills.
Apple says she was caught when the drugs fell out of her private area, on camera, and then covered the floor of the cell she was being held in.
Apple says, just days later, another inmate was caught with heroin in her bra, and an uncovered hypodermic needle in a private area.
The Sheriff, and Assistant Jail Superintendent Chris Clark say this new video visitation system is also expected to make it easier for visitors living out of town.
"We have inmates from the U.S. Marshal's Service, we have inmates from other counties throughout the state of New York whose family will have a difficult time getting to the facility to visit family and friends, so with this system, people will be able to sit in their homes and visit the inmate over the internet. Any time we can limit contact, or people coming in and out, it's a positive," Clark said.
The Assistant Jail Superintendent says the program is expected to be up and running by the beginning of 2013, and is already being used so inmates can visit with counselors and probation officers on camera.
"This will not replace contact visits. We're hoping just to add to the contact with the inmate and the family member. It actually has endless possibilities for the inmate and the visitor. (When)You are coming into a jail setting, you are subject to security regulations. You have to deal with our staff as far as getting through a scanner, getting into the visit room. Why not do it from the comfort of your living room?" he said.
Inmate Nellie Hoyt has been locked up for one month.
While sitting in a bright yellow one piece jump suit, and fluorescent orange shoes Hoyt said she was found guilty of two DWI's, and won't be a free woman until next year.
"I'm sentenced for 11 months, so I'm here for a while. This will give me a much better opportunity for visits. This is in addition (to my contact visits). So, if I can do this kind of visit, in addition to my regular visits, it will save my friends a lot of time, and give them more time to visit with me," Hoyt said.
Hoyt said, since her conviction, she's found God, and sobriety, but most of her friends from Alcoholics Anonymous, and from church live about an hour away in Schoharie County.
The 48-year-old says she's already learning that it's not easy to pack all of her visits into the two, one hour and fifteen minute 'jail visit time limits' every week.
"Two (people) at a time that can come in and sit and visit with me, but usually I have four to six people that are out in the waiting room waiting to come in and visit with me, so that narrows their visit down," Hoyt said.
The recovering alcoholic says she thinks video visits would improve her resolve to stay on the straight and narrow.
"Just for the AA fellowship to be able to Skype (video visit) with me, this will give me a much better opportunity for visits, and support," she said.
But jail officials say the added convenience for inmates and families is actually more of a side effect of the service than the goal.
Once the system is launched, visitors on the outside will have to pay about $15 for 20 minutes of 'video visit' time with the inmate.
Sheriff Apple says the pay-as-you-go system is expected to eventually bring in some much needed revenue for Albany County.
Assistant Jail Superintendent Clark said, "There are options where we can have the equipment put in for free, and then through time, start reaping some of the benefits from the cash brought in through the video visits. It's all about revenue. It's all about making money for the taxpayers of Albany County."
And, inmates like Hoyt say they think the system would also have the added benefit of eliminating some of the hassle and awkwardness for their visitors.
Video visits mean no more metal detectors, thick metal doors, and the unsettling feeling of being behind bars themselves.
Hoyt said, "I had an experience last week where an inmate had punched his visitor. So it caused some chaos, and my visitors that I had sitting in front of me, were, you know? It disrupted the whole thing, and they were a little intimidated by that. So it definitely would feel safer (to visit by video)."
Hoyt says she's looking forward to getting to use the system to speak with her sister in Pennsylvania.
"I was in the middle of writing a letter to my sister when I came down here. It would even really be a benefit for my sister, yeah. It's been a year (since I've seen her). She hasn't been able to visit. That's a long drive for an hour and fifteen minute visit," she said.
"So, I think if this benefits anyone, I mean, more so, it will definitely benefit my sister. And we're really close, so I'm really excited to be able to tell her about this," Hoyt said with a smile.
Clark says, once the system is installed, 'video visits' will be unlimited for inmates, and thanks to the ongoing revenue stream it will be a win-win for the staff, friends, family and taxpayers.
"If you could sit in the comfort of your home and visit for a 20 minute visit with your loved one, it's better for everybody. It's better for the inmate they've got contact with their family and friends on the outside, and it's got to be better for the family and friends that are living at great distances, and it's easier on the staff if there are fewer people coming in and out of the jail," he said.
Clark says once it's operational, the system will work by having friends and family of inmates 'on the outside' log onto a website, and pay $15 per 20 minute time slot.
A specific schedule would then be set up online between the visitor and the jail, then at the appointed time, both parties, the inmate, and the loved one would sit in front of their respective camera for the visit.