Cape May County Sheriff Gary Schaffer was watching his wife talk to their 3-year-old granddaughter via Skype, the audio-video Internet communication system, when the thought occurred to him.

"There's got to be a way . . . ," the veteran law enforcement official thought.

Earlier this month Schaffer unveiled the product of his brainstorming, and the Cape May County Jail became the first in the nation to offer totally online visitation service to all of its inmates.

The county has contracted with iWebVisit.com, a Nevada-based video conference service that has developed a program that allows anyone anywhere to log on and arrange to visit an inmate.

Think of it as Skype for the incarcerated.

And, as Schaffer likes to say, do the numbers.

"It's a win-win," said the sheriff, who, along with warden Donald Lombardo, sees the new service as an income generator and a way to ensure better security and better service for those who work in the jail and those who are spending time there.

Under the system, anyone who wants to arrange a "visit" simply logs on through iWebVisit.com, pays a $10 fee, and schedules what amounts to an online conference call with an inmate.

The visit lasts 20 minutes. Inmates in the jail, which has an average population of 210 prisoners, can have up to three visits per day. The service is available seven days a week.

Under the old system, visits were scheduled in person at the jail, and inmates would average no more than one a week. A maximum of three visitors were permitted at a time, and they had to go through the rigors of security screening and then cram themselves into a cubbyhole where they could speak via phone to the inmate who was brought to a visitation room on the other side of a thick glass partition.

Schaffer said the new system allowed any number of friends and family members to "visit" without leaving their home, office, or place of business.

Some institutions offer off-site visitation through closed-circuit, audio-video systems, but the program in Cape May County allows anyone with a computer and Internet access to visit with an inmate.

Prison visitation has long been considered a major component in rehabilitation, sociologists say.

"There is little if any contrary argument and conflicting data to the general principle that the better the quality of visitation throughout a prisoner's incarceration, the better the effects on the prisoner, his or her post-release adjustment, the family of the prisoner, and the community," said Terry A. Kupers, a psychiatrist who has studied and written extensively about the impact of incarceration on inmates.

And while a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union said that personal visits were more beneficial than visits over the Internet, Schaffer said there were several variables to consider.

Contact visits may be available at prisons where inmates are serving lengthy sentences, but they are not part of the county system.

The county jail has many inmates who are held for just a few days, until they post bail. Other prisoners are there because they were unable to make bail before trial. Still other inmates are there serving sentences of 364 days or less, as any prison sentence of a year or more is served in a state prison.

Last year, according to Lombardo, 3,400 prisoners were processed through the jail. The average stay, he said, was 26 days.

The Internet visitation system, Schaffer added, also provides for better internal security because prisoners don't have to be taken under guard to a visitation room.

In addition, family members, particularly children, he said, are spared the trauma of going to a jail and seeing a loved one literally behind bars.

The county paid $67,000 for the service and equipment, which includes 27 phone-linked monitors that have been placed throughout the jail, Schaffer said.

Most are in the day rooms located off the various cell blocks. Each morning, the monitor screen will list the visits scheduled for that day. It's the inmate's responsibility to be in front of the screen and on the phone at the appointed hour.

The calls are monitored and recorded for security.

Professional visits from lawyers and others involved in the justice system are not subject to that scrutiny.

Under the contract worked out with iWebVisit.com, the county jail will receive $4.65 from each $10 payment, which Schaffer says will quickly cover the start-up costs and eventually become a revenue source.

Better security, broader access, more visits, and availability seven days a week, Schaffer said with a smile as he ticked off the positives of the new program.

And that, he said, is not even taking into account the revenue.

"Win - win," he said.

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.