A half-decade ago, Dallas County came this close to signing off on a contract that could've banned in-person visits at its county jail. Tuesday, by a unanimous vote, the Dallas County Commissioners Court approved a plan that will see county jail inmates charged just $.01 per minute for phone calls. Inmates will also have access to tablets capable of sending and receiving messages to and from approved users, as well as downloading books and entertainment.
Criminal justice reform groups, who'd pushed the county to allow inmates to make free calls, praised the commissioners for coming close.
“Thanks to the Dallas County Commissioners Court, incarcerated individuals and their families will no longer be forced to pay exorbitant fees simply to communicate with their loved ones,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of Criminal Justice Campaigns at Color of Change. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to connect with their families — regardless of their release status. By demanding these concessions from Securus Technologies, Dallas authorities have ensured that some of the most vulnerable members of our society can maintain their right to stay connected.”
Unlike the county's previous contract with Securus, the prison-technology company that facilitates calls at jails and prisons around the country, the deal agreed to Tuesday doesn't kick any of the cash inmates spend on calls back to the county.
That lost revenue — about $2.4 million — was initially a sticking point for County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who delayed a vote on the contract two weeks ago. Unable to delay the vote a second time, Price voted with his Commissioners Court colleagues this time around.
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Concerns expressed by Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown over security issues related to the tablets were also alleviated over the two-week delay. Inmates will not be able to make first contact with anyone using the tablets, nor will they have access to the internet. Any paid downloads made by inmates will occur when the tablets are docked at night outside of inmates' cells.
J.J. Koch, the Court's only Republican, cited as a reason for his yes vote studies that show short-term jail inmates do better once they are released if they have easy access to the outside world while they are in jail. Dropping call costs represents a good first step on the way to further criminal justice reform in Dallas County, he said, before praising those who'd advocated on behalf of those locked up in the jail.
"It's impossible to confuse me with a bleeding-heart liberal," Koch said, "but I do want to thank those of you who have spoken today for not letting the great be the enemy of the good."