Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with VendEngine President & CEO Silas Deane to discuss the origins and development of his technology system for correctional facilities as well as his plans for the future.
AALM: Tell us a little about VendEngine.
SD: VendEngine, which became part of Tyler Technologies through acquisition in September 2021, is a cloud-based technology system that was designed specifically for county and state correctional facilities. Our system provides a range of services including: FinTech (financial technology) money and accounting modules; communication modules such as video visitation and messaging; administrative modules for grievance filings management; and medical requests, suicide alerts, and several others for daily operations.
VendEngine also provides inmates free access to an up-to-date legal law library kiosk or tablet in their pods. Our system integrates into other management systems across the county and state including courts, child support, and property taxes, among other critical needs. VendEngine acts as the financial and communications hub across these systems when needing to communicate with an incarcerated individual.
AALM: What was the inspiration behind VendEngine?
SD: Technology in the corrections market is notorious for being stuck in an antiquated state. Personally, I’ve experienced a long history of technology innovation and decided to bring cloud-based technology to a market that had, up until that point, not seen it. We first started with real-time financial transactions.
For example, an inmate’s mom would put money on her son’s books for commissary and would need to fill out an entire form or record book. It would take days to process before it even reached the inmate and was a very labor-intensive and slow process full of opportunities for fraud, misplaced funds, and more. So, we automated all of that through a kiosk, a website, and now an app. The process takes less than 10 seconds and involves no manual labor, while producing a clean audit trail.
There are several tasks that our system handles. It was born out of a real need for inmates and correctional staff. We went inside jail cells and had conversations with the incarcerated, their families, and officers to find a technology solution that eased the burdens and improved efficiencies and safety. Incarceration is hard on everyone and we knew technology could help.
AALM: How did you come to be involved?
SD: I founded the company when I saw the dearth of good technology systems that existed in the jail marketplace and witnessed the burdens of incarceration on the inmates, the staff and the families. I knew technology could help with that while also providing a safe system that improved staff effectiveness.
I’ve been in the technology industry for more than 30 years, starting as a technology staffer for former Senator and later Vice President, Al Gore, Jr. My background includes handling technology and justice-related issues as a staffer on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in both the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, serving as the executive director of a Technology Trade Association and later as a .com entrepreneur.
I love solving complex problems through the use of technology. Personally, I feel the corrections area is one of the toughest and hardest places to introduce cutting-edge technologies, so it has been a fun and important challenge.
AALM: Tell us a little bit about your plans for VendEngine.
SD: VendEngine was acquired by Tyler Technologies in September of 2021. Tyler is the leading provider of integrated software and technology services exclusively focused on the public sector. The acquisition by Tyler could not be a better fit for our continued growth as Tyler has a strong presence in nearly every sector of the local, county, and state government.
It’s clear that technology systems vary across multiple agencies in a single county and information can get lost along the way — systems don’t talk and paper files can get misplaced. That’s why our goal is continued integration, and our vision for public safety is to provide a single information flow — from dispatch through disposition. That means a comprehensive user experience from the time a 911 call is placed through the courts, through the incarceration period, and all the way through supervision or release. We believe the incarcerated individual benefits from that and the whole system makes the governmental entity much more efficient.
AALM: How has VendEngine developed since its ideation?
SD: VendEngine started as a financial application, helping family members support incarcerated individuals and giving them real-time data. Today, we are a complete correctional eco-sphere that manages financials, communication and administrative functions. We assist legal advocates, help with financial auditing, and enable staff efficiency, improving the entire correctional experience.
AALM: How do you see VendEngine evolving in the future? Any second phases planned out?
SD: We see a continued push to allow incarcerated individuals access to justice such as legal resources as well as support for mental health with education programs and even entertainment options. We’re also actively working with courts to provide inmates access to anger management programs, housing and drug and addiction counseling for reduced sentencing opportunities.
In addition to helping reduce recidivism, we partner with community groups on homelessness and job training to connect inmates with resources before they are released to help them be better prepared to re-enter society.
AALM: How do you see VendEngine impacting lawyers and their clients most?
SD: There are three important areas we believe directly impact lawyers and their clients the most.
First, our video visitation modules allow for a legal advisor to meet directly with their clients on the video visitation system. This legal visit cannot be recorded or monitored. This video visitation option reduces billing hours for the client on a more limited budget, as the cost is roughly 25-30 cents per minute billed to the lawyer. This saves a tremendous amount of time for the lawyer to come to the jail, wait for the inmate to be moved, and it reduces the risks associated with being one-on-one with a potentially violent individual. Our public defenders’ offices particularly like this feature.
Secondly, we have recently released our IntellaPoint modules that allow a lawyer to share documents privately across the system and allow their client to sign a document electronically. This greatly reduces the need to send paralegals and other staff to the facility to wait to sign court documents, plea agreements, etc. Creating a more streamlined process in less time.
For county attorneys and those responsible for protecting governmental entities, our grievance module system has been extremely helpful in providing a transactional system that tracks inmate grievances, responses and actions taken as a result of an inmate complaint. Once a complaint is filed, there is no way to delete, modify or alter a filing or a response. This provides a clear record of how each grievance was filed and handled.
AALM: What are the main benefits for lawyers?
SD: Overall, the main benefit is giving valuable time back to lawyers and providing them a safe, effective way to conduct business. Public defenders offices can potentially meet with twice as many inmates in a day and don’t have to spend time and gas driving to and from facilities they may be covering across a judicial district. It’s also a great tool to protect public health if there was another surge in COVID cases or other illnesses, including security and safety measures it can replace on a virtual level.
AALM: Where is VendEngine currently active? What plans do you have for expanding that footprint?
SD: Today, Tyler’s VendEngine operates in over 320 county and state correctional facilities across the U.S., Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. Currently, our largest footprints are in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas and California, but in reality, we have clients across 38 states in the U.S. and as a cloud-based provider can operate anywhere in the world.
AALM: Anything else you’d like to share with our legal readers?
SD: For those lawyers who work on behalf of county governments and their public agencies, I would advise that you keep the ever-fast-changing pace of technology in mind as you consider RFPs and contracts with jail and law enforcement providers.
It’s also important to check the fine print to ensure you have the right and flexibility to add new tech under contract, as many providers can prohibit this. Like any industry, technology evolves quickly and as a result, long-term governmental contract drafters and signers should keep that in mind.