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We Talked to a Denton County Inmate Using its Controversial and Bad Video Visitation System

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At the Dallas County jail, a local company's attempt last year to end in-person visitations and replace them all with video chats was quickly foiled by local activists and politicians. But in Denton, the same plan recently went off without a hitch. Denton County and the video company Securus are now facing lawsuits for eliminating in-person visits at the Denton jail, as we reported last month.

The visitation system currently in place Denton, as well as other counties where Securus operates, works like this: Video chats at the jail are offered to family and friends at no charge, while video chats done at home are offered for a fee, on the assumption that you're going to be lazy since it's all video anyway and just pay for the video chat from home. The money goes back to the county and Securus, a jail telecommunications company already notorious for its technical glitches and excessive fees on jail phone calls.

Prisoners' rights advocates complain that video visitation is less intimate and increases the odds of recidivism by cutting off inmates from family and friends, and research in Travis County has shown that inmate violence went up after in-person visits were phased out. To test it out, I arranged a visit with an inmate through Securus.

This was a free, on-site visit. The "visitation room" is in the Denton government center and looks like a computer lab. The Denton County Sheriff's office still treats it like an old-fashioned visitation room: personal items, including purses, are banned.

The visitation had to be arranged a few days in advance through the Securus site. The visits last 20 minutes each. Because I was late, I got a shorter visit. (Editor's note: Welcome to our world, inmate.) The computer software keeps people on a set schedule that makes visitation incredibly efficient but also inflexible.

Since we still talked through the pay phones used in traditional visits, you can't hear the man's responses in the recording I took. The inmate, Richard Powell, said he thought the system wasn't bad. (Powell said he violated probation from an earlier drug possession conviction.)

MVI 0033 from amy silverstein on Vimeo.

The most obvious downside is that we're only talking to about three quarters of each other's heads. To get your whole head in the picture, you have to keep backing and backing up to the point that, on my end, I would have needed to be out in the middle of the aisle.

Before the chat began, a warning flashed that the conversation was being recorded. What Securus and county governments do with their recordings is another issue of contention. In Travis County, defense attorneys sued after they discovered that prosecutors were getting the recordings of their Securus phone calls with their clients, which would be a major violation of the attorney-client privilege.

Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.

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