Texas Lawmakers May Require County Jails to Allow In-Person Visits

The state of Texas may soon mandate that prisoners in county custody be given at least two in person visits a week, a sensible move that staves off the prison complex's ongoing effort to automate and profit from jail visits.

The move comes on the heels of a series of controversies surrounding the introduction of video visitation at jails around the state. Last fall, an attempt to replace all in-person visits at Dallas County Jail — initiated by Securus, a company that provides video visitation technology — failed after activists and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins fought the plan. In Denton, however, Securus video visits are currently the only visits available, despite a lawsuit.

Dallas state Represenative Eric Johnson, after following all the goings on in his backyard, wrote a bill that would require all county jails to allow inmates at least two 20-minute in-person visits a week. Late Monday afternoon, his bill passed a Texas House voice vote.

"It doesn't limit the availability of video visitation; it simply requires that in-person visitation in our jails be left intact," Johnson said Monday of his bill. "It relates to county jails, not prisons — 60 percent of those who are there are innocent, waiting for trial, and couldn't afford the bond to get out of of jail."

That echoes the arguments made in the Dallas fight over the potential Securus contract in September.

"When people are in jail, communication with their family is one of the best ways to encourage them to take action so they won't be back in jail again and to have their best outcome after they're out of jail," Jenkins said at the time. Research supports this.

Unfortunately for those fighting against video-only visits, Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston, successfully amended Johnson's bill to carve under-construction and existing jails that don't have in-person visitation facilitates out of the requirement.

"While we understand that the financial burden of retrofitting these few county facilities is a hardship for counties, we are also very concerned about the families and their incarcerated loved ones who have been stripped of their ability to see each other in person, a practice we know leads to positive outcomes for rehabilitation and recidivism," Kymberlie Quong Charles, director of criminal justice programs at Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based inmate advocacy organization, said. "This emotional and financial hardship on families was not calculated when these counties opted to move toward facility construction that precludes face-to-face visitation."

The amendment, according to Grassroots Leadership, will exempt about a dozen counties from the requirements.

Johnson's amended bill now heads to the state senate.

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young