Dallas County Officials Say Video Won't End Regular Jail Visits. Can We Believe Them?
In October 2012, Travis County officials promised that bringing video visitation to the local jails wouldn't affect anything else about jail visits.
"We're not changing anything else from what we're doing," Travis County Major Darren Long told the county commissioners before they voted to approve a contract with Securus, the Dallas-based company offering the video visitation. "You can still come and do your free visits the traditional way, but that will provide an opportunity for those that don't feel like driving long distances."
In May 2013 Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton eliminated all in-person visits at his jails.
Now, the Travis County Sheriff's Office says that any belief that the in-person visits would stay after the 2012 county meeting was just a misunderstanding. "I believe there was a little bit of miscommunication, is what I think happened there," Major Wes Priddy said in an interview last week. Priddy says that Travis County inmates are still allowed two free visits per week, just like before. Only now, those two free visits take place by video visitation, through a free video kiosk installed on the visitors' side of the jail.
"The general public would still have the opportunity, and the inmate, to visit freely two times a week, so I believe that's where he [Major Long] was coming from," Priddy said. "I believe it probably didn't come out that way. It kind of sounded like nothing was going change. Well in fact, something had to change. We wouldn't be asking to change the process and bring in video visitation otherwise."
On Tuesday, Dallas County approved its own agreement for video visitation with Securus. Dallas County commissioners similarly promised that in-person visits would remain, with video just being an extra option."We will not change face-to-face visitation. And this provides a second way of visiting," director of operations Chris Thompson said in the meeting. But statements made by Securus make clear that the company does not want face-to-face visits to remain as they currently are in Dallas County.
"Securus will assist Dallas County to make changes in the current visitation policies to help migrate the current culture of waiting in line at the jail for visitation to visiting from home ... The capital required upfront is significant and without a migration from current processes to remote visitation, the cost cannot be recouped nor can the cost of telecom be supported," Securus wrote in a response to a list of questions asked by the Dallas County Purchasing Department. That document was included in the agenda packet for the commissioners meeting. "The real benefit of video visitation is only seen by changing what is traditionally done with visitation to remove traffic from the facility lobby and provide greater convenience for the public," Securus added.
County Judge Clay Jenkins, who had spoken out against Dalllas' original contract that would have more explicitly banned in-person visits, was the only one to vote against the latest agreement. He said he would approve the contract if, among other compromises, Securus would agree not to install a video kiosk on the visitors' side of the Dallas County jail.
"That allows people to put pressure on the sheriff to restrict in-person visitation," Jenkins said in an interview Monday, expressing a philosophy shared by prisoners rights' advocates.
But the other commissioners seemed annoyed by Jenkins' insistence on not letting Securus put video kiosks in the visitors' section. Commissioner John Wiley Price more or less asked Jenkins to stop talking about video visitation completely. "There's no other item that you've spoken more publicly on," Price said at one point, sounding exasperated.
"Everyone at this table has made a commitment to ensure that in fact the continuation of face-to-face visitation is a top priority," Commissioner Theresa Daniel later said, interrupting Jenkins as he read off a list of all the counties that have eliminated in-person visits after Securus put video kiosks on the visitors' side. She said she was a little insulted at the suggestion they might not follow through on the commitment.
Securus didn't send a representative to speak at the meeting. County staffer Chris Thompson, speaking on Securus' behalf, stressed that putting the video kiosks in the visitors' section of the jail would be a good idea.
"It does offer an alternative for those people that don't want to stand in long lines," Thompson said, an idea supported by Price and Commissioner Mike Cantrell.
Before the county's vote, a public speaker brought up that Securus is now facing a federal lawsuit in Travis County for allegedly recording attorney-client conversations and giving those recordings to the state, a blatant violation of attorney-client privilege.
Other than Jenkins, however, commissioners expressed little concern about that suit.
Here are Securus' plans for Dallas County in Securus' own words:
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.
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