Captive Audience: Counties and Private Businesses Cash in on Video Visits at Jails | Unfair Park | Dallas | Dallas Observer | The Leading Independent News Source in Dallas, Texas


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."

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn

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