Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and prisoner rights advocates are pushing back against a contract that would eliminate face-to-face meetings between inmates in the county's jails and their visitors.
County commissioners are set to vote Tuesday on a contract with Securus Technologies, a private company that provides video technology to jails. The contract, which Commissioners Mike Cantrell and John Wiley Price have endorsed, would hand management of jail telephones to the company too.
Family members would face paying for the privilege of video-conferencing with jailed loved ones under the contract, with the county taking a percentage of the money. Jenkins is OK with video visitation and fees to cover the costs, but doesn't think the county should make a profit off the system. He wants to reject the contract and seek new bids.
The Dallas Morning News has reported that "the contract's wording seems to suggest that face-to-face visits could be banned." Here's the passage in question, so you can judge it yourself:
"The fact is, if this rolls out visitors will no longer see their loved ones, obviously, at all," says Josh Gravens, the chairman of the board for Texas CURE, an advocacy group for inmate rights.
Banning in-person visits would allow the county to save money on labor. Visitors would no longer need to be processed and screened, and inmates would not have to be escorted to and from their cells. The county would also receive a portion of the $10 cost for each 20- minute remote video session. Visitors could come to the jail and use a video link there for free twice a week, but the contract calls for eventually cutting back the number of hours the on-site link is available in order to attain Securus' goal of getting paid for an average of one remote visit per inmate, per month.
Not only do the restrictions and costs of video visitation create a burden for the families of inmates, most of whom have not yet been convicted of anything, they create a market for illegal cell phones.
New York state has some of the lowest phone rates for inmates in the country and provides other services like busing visitors from New York City to upstate so they can visit loved ones. The state also has one of the lowest rates in the country of employees being sanctioned for sneaking in cell phones, Peter Wagner the executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, says.
The irony, Wagner says, is that the county won't reap many benefits from the contract.
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"[The video visitation] is a lot of money to families, it's a lot of money to Securus, it's not that much money to the county," Wagner says. "In this country we do not punish people for the crimes of their relatives, that's just bonkers."
Securus Technologies did not respond to a request for comment for this story.