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Texas Legislature Mandates In-Person Visitation for County Jail Inmates

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All that separates Texas and mandatory in-person visits for most of the state's county jail inmates is Governor Greg Abbott's signature.

Working through the Memorial Day weekend, the Texas Senate approved a bill requiring county jails in the state to offer inmates at least two 20-minute, in-person visitation opportunities a week, stemming a growing tide of county jails that offer only video visitation.

In Dallas County, the battle over video visitation has already been fought. Last fall, County Judge Clay Jenkins and advocates for inmates' rights successfully fought a proposed county contract with Securus that could have banned in-person visits at Dallas County Jails. Securus facilitates video visitation around the state, including in Denton County, where a ban on in-person visits led to a lawsuit.

State Representative Eric Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, authored the House version of the bill.

"It doesn't limit the availability of video visitation; it simply requires that in-person visitation in our jails be left intact," Johnson said during the House debate 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."

John Whitmire, the bill's sponsor in the Senate, said keeping in-person visitation keeps families together and prevents divorces, echoing a sentiment that ran through the Dallas County debate.

"Often, inmates need to be seen and talked to, to be encouraged to do the right thing — told to cooperate, get back to work and get back to your family," Whitmire said.

About a dozen jails in the state will be allowed to continue offering only video visits — the Observer's Amy Silverstein documented some of the many issues that causes — because they were built, or are in the process of being built, without facilities for in-person visitation.

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