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Captive Audience: Counties and Private Businesses Cash in on Video Visits at Jails

Kristina Leisey's former fiance sits in jail in Hopkins County on a drug-possession charge, his link to the world outside a telephone and frequent calls to her. "He's trying to call every day, sometimes two or three times a day," Leisey says. "He doesn't understand how much it adds up after awhile."

The jail telephones are operated by Securus, a Dallas-based corporation that is a major player on the tech side of the for-profit prison industry. The company is popular with county and state governments for its ability to raise money through jail phone calls. It's not popular with the people who actually take the calls, the families and friends of inmates, who find their bank accounts taking hits from a system that is expensive and confusing to use.

To receive the calls, Leisey must deposit money into a prepaid account through Securus. Calls last 15 minutes each, at the flat rate of $4.95. Yet the calls often get dropped before the 15 minutes are up, Leisey says, and $4.95 is deducted from her account regardless. She has tried to call Securus to tell them about the problem, but the telecommunications giant never seems to answer its own phones. "I can never get through to them, ever," she says. The last time she called, she put her cell on speaker as she did her laundry. After 23 minutes, she gave up.

There is another option that's free. She can visit the jail where she can actually see the face of Donald Ballowe, her ex-fiance. But as Leisey discovered shortly after his arrest in August, those visits too have moved into the hands of Securus. To speak to Ballowe without paying Securus, she has to drive to the jail a full 24 hours in advance to schedule a visit the following day. The next day, she has a "visit" inside the jail visitation room, not exactly with Ballowe, but with a computer screen. When her ex-fiance's face appears on screen, he is still sitting in his crowded cell, sometimes as other inmates walk past him on the way to shower.

It's less like the stereotypical jail visit you see on a TV cop drama, with visitor and inmate separated across a table or by a sheet of glass, and more like a Skype chat, complete with annoying a two- or three-second stuttering lags in the video, Leisey says. And sometimes the sound is muddled by a strange echo that cuts into the visit. "You only get 25 minutes, so if half the time you're trying to repeat yourself, it's not like you're getting the whole 25 minutes anymore."

If she owned a computer, she could go for the pricier but easier option and "visit" Ballowe by video from the comfort of her own home. But unlike Skype -- whose video and phone services range from free to cheap -- Securus' regular rate for a video chat to Hopkins County's jail is pricey. Leisey, a single mother, is unemployed and can't afford even the phone service. "I haven't been able to talk to him in a couple of weeks," she says.

Not coincidentally, free on-site video visits are offered at the jail only three days each week. Remote visits -- those visitors pay for -- are more frequent. Clearly, Securus' interest lies in encouraging visitors to use the remote system, and the county stands to gain, too. When Hopkins County signed its deal with Securus in 2012 the company agreed to give the county a 70 percent cut of its profits from video and phone calls. Securus anticipated the county would make $455,597 over five years. Instead, though, in the 2014 fiscal year Hopkins County has earned only $35,659.

Hopkins County is one of five Texas counties that adopted Securus' video visitation and eliminated in-person, face-to-face visits afterward. Soon, Securus will bring its video chats to Dallas County. County commissioners here promise that in-person, non-video visits won't be eliminated, but what will happen next is anyone's guess.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and prisoner advocates have a pretty good idea about what's coming, though, and they're not happy about it.

Jail visits have never been pleasant. Even in small counties, waiting rooms can get crowded, and in major metropolitan areas it's worse.

Visitors drive long distances, wait in long lines and get searched as they go through a metal detector, only to see an inmate through glass, in a noisy room crowded with other visitors. Keeping track of visitors and shuffling inmates to and from their cells consumes resources from cash-strapped jails. Despite these drawbacks, data suggest in-person visits are worthwhile for both inmates and law enforcement, making jails safer and inmates less likely to return to jail once they're free.

In the largest study of its kind, researchers with the Minnesota Department of Corrections tracked 16,000 prisoners for five years and found that inmates who received at least one personal visit while incarcerated were 13 percent less likely to commit another felony and 25 percent less likely to violate parole. The recidivism rates dropped with each visit, the researchers found.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a state agency that creates guidelines for county and city jails, says that jails must offer inmates two free, 20-minute visits each week. If video visitation was just an option, researchers say, it would be an excellent tool to help inmates. Instead, video companies are exploiting a loophole in the rules and replacing the mandated two visits in the jails with free on-site video visits, operating on the theory, presumably, that meeting by video is equivalent to looking someone in the face, even if it is through glass in a crowded jail visiting room.

While people who "visit" incarcerated friends from their own home computers are charged anywhere from $5 to $20 for a 20 minute visit, the people who visit for free at the jails talk from an on-site video kiosk. Despite the fact that Securus puts free kiosks in the jails, the company seems to be banking on people paying to make video visists from home.

In September, the Dallas County Commissioners Court nearly approved a contract of its own with Securus that would have explicitly eliminated all in-person visits at the Lew Sterrett Jail in favor of video visitation. Judge Jenkins, who strongly opposes the practice of counties profiting from inmate fees, discovered the clause and alerted prisoners' advocates, says Josh Gravens, a Dallas activist at Texas CURE, a prison watchdog group. Jenkins, with the help of activists, former inmates and their families who spoke out at the September meeting, persuaded commissioners to reject the initial contract. "We think in-person visitation is extremely important," Jenkins said, speaking on behalf of himself and Gravens. "We think it's wrong to make commissions, above cost [to] recoup, on families."

In November, Jenkins said he would only support a newer contract with Securus if, among other stipulations, Securus agreed not to install any on-site video kiosks on the visitors' side of the jail.

"If that kiosk goes in the jail, that is the first step toward restricting in-person visitation," he said, questioning why the kiosks were necessary if Dallas was promising not to cut out face-to-face visits. "It's a lot like, if you don't want to use something ... why have it?"

But on the day of the second vote in November, other commissioners appeared insulted by Jenkins' suggestion that they might one day eliminate face-to-face visits. The on-site video kiosks were staying, the other commissioners insisted, merely as an option for visitors who didn't want to wait in as long lines.

"We will not change face-to-face visitation. And this provides a second way of visiting," county staffer Chris Thompson assured commissioners.

"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 said at the meeting. The commissioners approved the contract on a 4-1 vote, with Jenkins the only one opposed.

Yet in a written statement to the county, Securus says cutbacks to Dallas' current visitation policy will be necessary since the company is installing the kiosks at its own expense. "The capital required upfront is significant and without a migration from current processes to remote visitation, the cost cannot be recouped ..." Securus wrote.

The final, signed contract also indicates that on-site video visits will be introduced to Dallas jails. "All on-site video visitation sessions shall be required to be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance, where predictable," the contract says, "and shall not exceed two free on-site visits per inmate per week."

Securus and its competitor Global Tel *Link have been buying out smaller companies and gaining control of the jail and prison telephone market since the early 2000s, but it took until 2013 for the FCC to finally act on complaints that the companies were ripping off families with excessive phone rates.

"This is a tiny, dark corner of the telecommunications market, and they weren't looking, and it took that long to organize enough political pressure to get the FCC to prioritize this," says Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, "and for people to realize that this affects millions and millions of people."

The market is estimated by Bloomberg News to be worth $1.2 billion, with about half of the correctional phone services contracts belonging to Alabama-based Global Tel*Link. Number two is Securus, with 30 percent of the market. Both are backed by investment banks--Global Tel*Link is funded by American Securities and Securus by Abry partners.

It's a business setup that "creates another incentive to cash out," Wagner says. "There are two kind of strategies with a product like this. One is that you price it cheaply and you encourage people to use your product, and you make it up in volume. Then there's the short-sighted proposal, which is you charge as much as possible, and then you jam on all these little additional fees to eat up the customers' money and you don't care whether they like using your product."

Telephones, like the videos, offer a valuable service that wasn't available to inmates before. In Texas prisons, inmates used to be allotted just one five-minute phone call every 90 days before the state signed a contract with Securus. "In all fairness to Securus," says Darryl Stewart, whose son is incarcerated in Missouri, "if they would stop billing for calls you didn't get, they would be doing a real service." Stewart plans to take the company to small claims court for billing him for calls that he says he missed. His son often calls when he's not around to answer. "They seem to have a phone [in the prison] available 24/7."

Families' attempts to get around the high phone rates have spawned a new industry of services offering cheap jail calls, such as Cons Call Home. The rates for long-distance calls from prisons are substantially higher than local calls, so the services work by rerouting phone numbers that come in from Securus or one of its competitors to a cheaper line. Predictably, Securus has tried to put those companies out of business. When Securus has discovered that its number is being rerouted for cheaper rates, the company has responded by simply blocking the inmate's account and cutting off the funds.

"Today I was told by Securus Technologies that I am masking my true identity and phone number and this is illegal," a woman wrote to the FCC in 2012 after she purchased a Google Voice number to match the area code of where her husband was incarcerated. "I was told that I can face federal charges and so can my husband ... I need to know if I am truly doing something illegal."

She wasn't. Securus asked the FCC to crack down on the third-party calls in a 2009 petition but in 2013 the FCC issued an opinion that Securus and Global Tel *Link had no right to block the calls.

In 2003, a Washington, D.C., grandmother named Martha Wright filed a class action lawsuit against the Corrections Corporation of America for the phone calls that she said had cost her thousands of dollars over the years. A judge sent the case to the FCC, and the agency finally decided in 2013 to cap all interstate phone and jail prison rates at 24 cents per minute.

Despite the FCC's crackdown, Global Tel*Link and Securus can still tack on high fees for things such as using a credit card or setting up an account. More recently, customers say Securus has added mysterious "taxes" to their bills that weren't there before the FCC ruling.

"They are charging a flat rate of $3.15 per call and an additional $2 for taxes, bringing one call to a total cost of $5.15," says a complaint from a Milwaukee customer, sent to the FCC this July. "Sometimes the facility phone hangs up within 1 minute of speaking, and charges you the whole $5.15."

In Dallas, Securus currently provides phone service to the jail and will continue to do so under a new agreement. Securus says people who pay by credit card through the phone in Dallas will be charged a convenience fee "up to $4.95." Using a credit card, Securus says, is one of its "optional services that incur convenience fees or a minimum funding amount."

Carolyn Esparza, a former social worker who founded Community Solutions, an El Paso nonprofit that provides social services to inmates and their families, says most people don't have the heart to say no to an expensive call from an inmate. "It is addictive for the prisoner to be able to call home, to be able to call home, to be able to call home again," she says.

Paul Walcutt, an Austin criminal defense lawyer, knew that Securus was recording the calls of his clients, and was more or less OK with it. Inmates are warned frequently that their calls are subject to recording. Sometimes, Walcutt says, the recordings have been presented in court and have hurt his cases, while other times they've helped. But his own conversations, he'd been assured by the Travis County Sheriff's Office, were safely off-record to protect attorney-client privilege.

After hearing rumors to the opposite, Walcutt asked the prosecutor's office for a DVD of a client's recorded calls. To Walcutt's surprise, the first clip he played from the DVD was none other than a recording of a phone call between himself and the client.

Walcutt told the prosecutor, who he says assured him that they stop listening to the calls when they hear that it's an attorney on the other end. "I think probably, the majority of prosecutors are ethical enough to not listen to that," Walcutt agrees. "But can I be sure? No, I can't."

So Walcutt then played the DVD for Major Wes Priddy from the sheriff's office, who seemed "very surprised," Walcutt says. Priddy looked into it and shortly after told Walcutt that the attorney-client calls had been improperly marked but the problem had since been fixed.

Nonetheless, Walcutt warned other local attorneys to be careful about what they said on the phone, and in April the Texas Civil Rights Project used Walcutt's evidence to file a federal lawsuit against Travis County, alleging that the prosecutor and sheriff's office were violating the attorney-client privilege and inmates' civil rights with the recordings. "Who knows what happened once we brought this to the sheriff's attention and Securus' attention," Walcutt says. "Did they erase a bunch of data? Did they erase all the calls that were on there to kind of cover their ass? I don't know."

When Dallas County approved its contract with Securus in November, a local attorney who spoke publicly warned the commissioners about the federal suit in Travis County, which has received coverage in the press but seemed to take the commissioners by surprise.

"Is that true, is there a live suit in Travis County against Securus?" Daniel asked Dallas County staffer Chris Thompson during the November meeting.

"I'm not aware of the particulars on it," Thompson said. "I've been told there is a suit, but I'm not aware of the particulars." Jenkins interrupted to confirm that the lawsuit was real. But those concerns were quickly cut off by Commissioner Mike Cantrell. "They have a remedy in the court system," Cantrell said. "That's what the court system is for."

Travis County doesn't just use Securus' phones. In May 2013, the local jails finished their transition to video visitation as Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton eliminated in-person visits.

The switch happened with little warning. Jorge Renaud, a policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, knew nothing about that or video visitation at all until he got arrested last year on DWI charges. He sat in detention in Travis County for three months, he says, communicating with his friends through a Securus video system that was riddled with computer bugs and prevented eye contact. His friends who visited him, other prison advocates, were similarly appalled and surprised. "You have no sense of intimacy, no sense of contact," he says.

Curious about how the limited human contact affects inmate behavior, he began filing open records requests once he got out of jail. Using data provided by Travis County, Renaud found that inmate infractions climbed from 820 in May 2012 to 1,160 in April 2014, and the facility went from averaging 940 infractions per month to 1,087 per month in that same period. Contraband into the facility increased 54 percent, the data showed, and inmate-on-inmate assaults increased 20 percent. Renaud published his work in an October report sponsored by Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based prison rights group. Most troubling for jail workers, Renaud's report found, inmate-on-staff assaults in Travis County jumped from three to six in the month immediately after the change, and have gradually increased since, topping out at eight in April 2014.

Priddy dismisses those numbers as an aberration and insists that the video visitation has made Travis County safer.

Other jailers tend to agree. "Our main goal was to lower the movement of the inmates," says Hopkins County Sheriff Butch Adams. "The only problem we really have is you have the older population that comes to visit ... they're not computer literate, so it's hard for them."

In Shawnee County, Kansas, Commissioner Ken Cook says visitors used to walk through a hallway that was crowded and even dangerous. "It was always a safety concern with young children playing with or sticking their fingers into the tracks of the doors," he says. With the video kiosks in a separate room, he says the risk of children sticking their fingers in that dangerous door isn't a problem anymore. The video program, also operated by Securus, has received no complaints, Cook says.

Defending his county's switch to video visitation, Cook points to the expensive phone system that Shawnee County jails use, which is also run by Securus. "If you look at the rates they charge for the telephone, the calls are outrageous, absolutely outrageous," he says. "If I had the option to pay a lesser amount than I was paying for the telephone, by video, I would pay that in a heartbeat."

Email the author at amy.silverstein@dallasobserver.com.

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