Williamson County Jail 2

Prisons and jails across the U.S. are letting inmates out during the coronavirus pandemic, but those who are left behind want to stay in contact with family members more than ever. 

The Brentwood company VendEngine provides software to jails in prisons. Inmates use the software to order items from the commissary or communicate with family. Family members use their software to call or message inmates, and can also send them money. Jails can use VendEngine’s software to keep track of inmate grievances, commissary orders and communication.

VendEngine president Silas Deane said inmates are using the service more than ever to talk with family members, and the company is giving inmates two free video calls per week.

Despite that increase in need, Deane said revenue is falling because so many prisoners have been released. Deane said Williamson County’s jail, which uses VendEngine’s software, is at 40% to 60% of its normal inmate population. 

“You've got inmates using it more, but there are fewer inmates,” he said. 

Williamson County Jail suspended in-person visitations in March, and had released 136 inmates by early April. A spokesperson for the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office said earlier this month that no inmates had tested positive for the virus, although it’s unclear if the jail is actively testing inmates. 

Fewer inmates means less profit for VendEngine. The company charges inmates to use the service. Jails and prisons don’t pay for the software, and friends and family members can send messages to inmates for free. 

Deane is hoping that this outbreak will allow the company to prove the value of its products to jails and prisons. He said the video call service can reduce the number of visitors.

“It's kind of been a win on that side for us. It's forced them to see the model,” he said. 

The company already provides its software to about 350 prisons and jails across the U.S. Deane said the company has added at least a dozen new clients since the outbreak started.

Most of VendEngine’s 40 employees work at an office in Brentwood, but all of those employees are now working from home. Deane said it’s been difficult to collaborate with everyone physically separated.

Many of his employees like working from home, and some of the changes may stick. He said the company may change its policies to make that easier following the outbreak. Leaders at the company are thinking about redesigning the physical office to make it more of a shared space.

While the virus outbreak has been difficult, Deane said it could make the business more effective in some ways. The situation is allowing the business to prove its worth to jails, and forcing workers to learn new skills.

"People who were adverse to technology before ... They're having to learn and change as well. That's been good in many ways," he said. "If you look at the backside of this, people have learned to use technology tools that they did not use before this. I think it's going to have an impact on the way we do things."

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS is a series documenting how small businesses in Williamson County are adapting to the coronavirus outbreak.

If you know about a business that is using a creative approach to adapt to the coronavirus outbreak send an email to [email protected]