People locked up in the Denton County Jail used to be allowed to see visitors two days per week. But when a company called Securus Technologies began offering a service for expensive virtual "visits" with jail inmates, things went down the way they usually do when Securus takes over. On January 31, the Denton County Sheriff's Office quietly eliminated all in-person visits at its jails, replacing them with Securus' video chats.
On Wednesday, attorneys from a Denton law firm announced they were filing a class action lawsuit against Securus. The video company, which is based in Dallas, is targeted in the suit because of the way it writes its contracts with counties signing up for video visitation. Securus' contracts typically have a clause saying that the county must get rid of in-person visits. The lawsuit argues that this stipulation gives Securus a monopoly on jail visitation, in violation of federal law.
"The use of anti-competitive contractual tactics by Securus, in an attempt to profit off the backs of inmates and their families, many of whom are indigent and have yet to be convicted of any criminal activity, is unconscionable and cannot be tolerated," said attorney J. Edward Niehaus in a statement.
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In a second lawsuit, filed Monday, the family of an inmate has sued Securus, Denton County, the Denton County Sheriff's Office and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the state agency that has been allowing jails across Texas to get rid of live visits."I remember standing out in the freezing cold waiting to get in [for visitation], but it was worth it," the inmate's mother told the Denton-Record Chronicle.
Securus has spun its services as a convenience, a chance to visit an offender from the comfort of your own home. Prices for that convenience vary from county to county. In Denton, the at-home visits cost $5 for a 20-minute video chat. People who can't pay are still allowed free visits -- but not in-person. Instead, they must drive to the jail and use on-site video kiosks to have free video chats with their loved ones. The on-site video chats are plagued with time delays and bugs, as we reported in a November cover story.
Securus is also launching video visitation in Dallas County. Before county commissioners could approve a contract last year that would have mandated Dallas also get rid of in-person visits, County Judge Clay Jenkins and prisoner rights' advocates pushed hard to preserve in-person visitation. In response, the Dallas County Commissioners approved a revised contract with Securus and promised verbally, though not in writing, that in-person visits would remain. Jenkins voted against the deal because he's worried it would still give Securus and the county wiggle room to end face-to-face visitation in Dallas.
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.