It was an early January evening, and spirits were about as high as one could expect in the visitation room of the Grand Forks County Correctional Center.
About a dozen people crowded around a set of eight blue kiosks, each reminiscent of a payphone, where they had 25 minutes apiece to speak with a loved one serving time at the jail. Each terminal that day was operational, and any problems were seemingly minor. But that’s not always the case.
Anecdotal accounts, including a series of in-person visits by Herald reporters in December and January, indicate that Grand Forks County’s jail visitation kiosks often work poorly – and sometimes don’t work at all.
The system is operated by TurnKey Corrections, a Wisconsin company that contracts its services to the county jail. At times, the Herald observed, a TurnKey kiosk is simply out of order. Other times, visitors said, its audio or video feed falters. And often, the software installed on the kiosks leaves users flummoxed and frustrated.
The company upgraded the jail’s systems in December, but problems – ranging from inconsistent equipment to what some visitors say is a disconnect between jail staff and visitors who ask for their help – persist. Bret Burkholder, the jail’s administrator, said he has no record of any complaints about the visitation system there, and Dewey Wahlin, TurnKey’s president, said he isn’t aware of any “major” complaints from the jail.
The Herald looked into this story after receiving a tip in November about the poorly working systems. A Herald reporter last year encountered similar problems with the visitation system at the Beltrami County Jail in Minnesota.
“I don’t know why they have to make it this hard,” Kayla Jetty said during an early December visit to the Grand Forks County Correctional Center. She was there to speak to her fiance, but the visitation system wasn’t cooperating.
Visitors are required to create an account before they can speak to an inmate. Jetty’s kiosk had stalled on her first attempt and, when it snapped back to life, the system told her the email address she had given already was registered to an account – the one she had just tried to create. Jetty tried again with a second email address and ran into the same problem.
The system didn’t stall on her third try with a third email address. It then told Jetty she should receive a confirmation email within 24 hours, after which she’d be able to use her new account.
She left, frustrated, shortly after that.
The visitation area in Grand Forks isn’t like those depicted in movies and on TV, where inmates and visitors speak through a pane of clear, thick plastic. Instead, eight terminals, six of which seemed to work reliably last month, line a wall. Another 20-something deactivated terminals, remnants of the jail’s previous visitation system, sit in adjacent rows.
Visitors pass bits of inherited wisdom to one another: pressing a “ready” button too early means the system backs up several steps and asks the visitor to re-enter the bulk of their information, for instance. One man said he refused to use a terminal at the far end because it worked so poorly.
Lori Garcia, 48, said she tries to visit her son at least twice a week. Garcia put $30 on her son’s commissary account, and spoke briefly with him on a recent Thursday to say as much. She told the Herald the audio or video feeds on the visitation kiosks cut out or work poorly about half the time.
“I’m surprised, actually, all these are actually running right now,” Preston Davis, Garcia’s boyfriend, said about the kiosks.
'I need it working'
TurnKey, based in River Falls, Wis., has had a contract to supply the jail’s visitation system since July 1, 2016. The five-year agreement stipulates that the company will supply 33 kiosks for inmates and another eight for the public, plus a kiosk for cash and credit card deposits, a booking and release station, and nine vending machines. It all comes at no charge to the county, which earns a 23% commission on all “revenue generating sales.”
Those sales netted the county $67,191 on $309,000 worth of sales from Jan. 1-Dec. 26, 2019, after accounting for sales taxes.
TurnKey also earns money from the sales, but Wahlin, the company’s president, declined to say what that amounted to.
Burkholder, the jail’s administrator, said TurnKey staff updated the system there in late December, and that the update had been in the works since September.
“If we have a problem with their hardware, with their software, I expect them, contractually, to rectify the situation,” Burkholder said. “If it’s not working, I need it working because we’ve got people who want to visit with their loved ones.”
Burkholder said that, nowadays, there are better visitation systems available to jails.
“I think TurnKey realizes that as well,” he said. “And that’s why … we saw an upgrade here late last year as they’re trying to improve their product. There’s many more players in this now than there was when that contract was put out.”
Wahlin said the company has a robust customer service team and reporting system. Its technology, he said, is industry-leading, and the company does not rely on jail staff to tell its employees when there’s a problem with the visitation system.
“We have the ability to monitor each and every kiosk from our headquarters,” Wahlin told the Herald. “It’s on a continuous basis. We are looking at our systems out there and making sure that things are working properly.”
He said he is not aware of any major complaints from Grand Forks, and that TurnKey employees are in contact with jail staff there very often.
“There are some jails that turn the kiosks off in the evenings. Is that kiosk no longer working or is it just offline? So we may have to talk with the jails. Or if the jail sees something they can call us and put a ticket into our – I’ll call it, industry leading customer service team – and our system that can help them,” Wahlin said. “Now, if we don’t hear about it, something’s turned off, or there’s an assumption it’s turned off – because they sometimes do that, you know – if they’re not calling us then there may be an assumption that it’s turned off.”
Human error might also mean a kiosk looks like it’s down, but is actually just shut off or needs to be rebooted, he said.
“In every single case, I would say we’ve got a very strong customer service team that responds to issues that come up in very short order,” Wahlin said.
Unlike the previous vendor’s visitation system, TurnKey allows inmates’ friends and loved ones to call them from outside the jail. It costs 39 cents per minute. And all inmates are given an email account, messages to and from which cost 25 cents apiece. Visits at the jail itself are free.
Eileen Zygarlicke, a teacher at Community High School in Grand Forks, recently tried to speak remotely with a former student of hers, but the system rejected both of the credit cards she attempted to use.
“No idea why they got declined,” she told the Herald. “I gave up.”
Zygarlicke has made a handful of in-person visits, as well, and ultimately needed a church friend’s help creating an account for the visitation system.
“The people who are in jail are people,” she said. “They have family members, they have friends who care about them. So why make it difficult to have these people connect with them?”
The county’s contract with TurnKey stipulates that the company will keep “all equipment in good working order and operating condition” and train all jail staff on the system as needed. And, under the contract, jail staff are expected to learn and “apply procedures” to effectively implement TurnKey services within the jail.
That, Burkholder said, means company employees showed jail staff how to review visitors’ account applications.
A receptionist is supposed to forward daytime complaints during the workweek to TurnKey, Burkholder said, and a sergeant is supposed to do the same for complaints at night. Jail visitation hours are 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.
Burkholder said he has no record of a complaint about the visitation kiosks. It’s possible, he said, that visitors notified one of his staff and that staffer contacted TurnKey without his knowledge.
Gary Benjamin, 46, said his parents gave up trying to visit him via the TurnKey system. They called the jail for help navigating it and “whoever they talked to wouldn’t give them the time of day,” Benjamin said.
When the Herald visited the jail on a recent Thursday, the screen on a young man’s terminal unexpectedly went black and a reporter attempted to notify jail staff. After several presses of a button on a wall-mounted speaker in the jail lobby – “you’re going to (tick) ’em off,” a woman warned – a man’s voice answered.
“If they don’t work, we can’t do anything about it,” the man said. “Your best luck is to go to another kiosk and try again.”
TurnKey’s Wahlin said jail staff have complimented the company’s technology and customer service. He said he suspects inmates and visitors to the jail have complimented the system as well, but he doesn’t often speak to them face to face.
“My interaction is with the jail staff,” Wahlin said.
The Herald’s Hannah Shirley, who wrote a first-person account about a Dec. 12 trip to the jail, contributed to this report.