Advocates want return of face-to-face Texas jail visits

Released a study that said disciplinary infractions, assaults and contraband had increased in the year since a video-only visitation policy has been in place


By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Inmate advocates in Austin on Thursday called on sheriff’s officials to restore in-person visitation at Travis County jails, saying the video chatting system is costly for prisoners and their families and has not improved security as promoted.

Members of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and Grassroots Leadership released a study on statistics obtained from the sheriff’s office, which they said indicated disciplinary infractions, assaults and contraband had increased in the year since a video-only visitation policy has been in place. That policy might not be linked to the increase in violence, Jorge Renaud, a policy analyst with the coalition, told reporters.

“But you surely cannot link it to a decrease,” he said. “And that was their assumption — that the jails were going to be safer because of this, and they are not safer.”

The news conference, hosted by the Texas Civil Rights Project, came as commissioners this month are expected to vote on whether to renew their contract with Dallas-based Securus Technologies Inc., one of two major players in the $1.2 billion prison phone market, which installed the system at no cost to the county in May 2013.

Under the contract, outside callers are charged $20 for a 20-minute conversation with an inmate, giving the county $4.60 in commission from each call. Jail visitors also must use the video conferencing system, though at no cost.

Roger Wade, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told the American-Statesman on Thursday there are no plans for bringing back in-person visitation as doing so would require additional staff and resources. In announcing the launch of the video system, the sheriff’s office said exclusive video visitation would be better for safety and security as deputies would no longer have to move inmates from one building to another for the visits.

Wade said advocates were taking their comments out context. Sheriff’s officials never claimed the policy would reduce violence or contraband in the entire jail system, he said, but that it would make the visitation process safer.

“This is a better system in our estimation,” he said. “The average stay for an inmate is around 17 days. You’re not going to be in there for such a long amount of time time that you are going to lose that contact (with friends and family).”

Travis County is one of at least a half-dozen jurisdictions in Texas that have moved to solely offering the Skype-like video chatting services since 2008. Advocates on Thursday called the elimination of in-person visits “a bait-and-switch” as it had not been clear the service would no longer be available when commissioners approved the contract in October 2012, and most were under the impression that it was to supplement — not replace — the old model.

“We’re not changing anything else from what we’re doing,” Maj. Darren Long told commissioners then. “You can still come and do your free visits the traditional way.”

The sheriff’s office and Securus have been under fire from prisoner advocates since January over the lack of face-to-face visitations. In April, the firm and the top law enforcement agencies in Travis County were sued over reported recorded conversations between defense lawyers and inmates — communications protected under the Constitution — which advocates say were turned over to prosecutors.

The report released Thursday found:

• Disciplinary infractions at the Travis County Correctional Complex climbed from approximately 820 in May 2012 to 1,160 in April 2014. The facility averaged 940 disciplinary infractions per month during the prior year and it has averaged 1,087 disciplinary infractions per month since then.

• Disciplinary cases for possession of contraband in the facility increased 54 percent from May 2013 through May 2014.

• Inmate-on-inmate assaults saw a 20 percent increase between May 2012 and May 2014.

• Inmate-on-staff assaults immediately doubled after elimination of in-person visits, going from three in April 2013 to six in May 2013, climbing to seven in July 2013, and topping out at eight in April 2014, with slight declines in between.

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