Dallas County, Texas Considers Using Video Chats for Jail Visitation

Inmate advocacy groups say the system amounts to profiteering off inmates and their families, and the county’s top elected official is leading a last-ditch effort to kill the contract.

by Matthew Watkins, McClatchy News Service / September 8, 2014

The Dallas County Jail may soon allow inmates to video chat with their friends and family on the outside. But the new perk may come with a serious drawback — the loss of in-person visitation.

The county has chosen a local company, Securus Technologies, to install “video visitation” by the end of this year. The system would allow people to chat with inmates from their homes or at special kiosks across the county. The Commissioners Court will consider signing a three-year contract for the system on Tuesday.

The video chats would cost $10 per 20-minute visit. And there’s a provision buried in the 29-page contract that could require the county to eliminate almost all in-person meetings.

Inmate advocacy groups say the system amounts to profiteering off inmates and their families, and the county’s top elected official is leading a last-ditch effort to kill the contract. County Judge Clay Jenkins says the county shouldn’t profit off the backs of some of the area’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

“This is a very insidious thing,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Jenkins’ colleagues will agree. Proponents see video visitation as a way to free up manpower at the jail and make visitation more convenient. County staff is recommending approval. And two commissioners — Mike Cantrell and John Wiley Price — have expressed support for the plan in the past. Others have hinted that they have concerns but have been reluctant to discuss the matter due to the county’s strict procurement policies.

Jenkins said he plans to reach out to “every member of the clergy that I can get my hands on in Dallas County” to rally opposition to the idea. He hopes to persuade the court to try to find a video chat option that is less expensive for inmates.

The system wouldn’t cost the county anything. In fact, it may open a new revenue stream. Securus would install the technology for free. And, if certain parameters are met, it would share up to 25 percent of its revenue with the government. That could mean millions of dollars for Dallas County, Jenkins predicted.

To Cantrell, the lone Republican on the Commissioners Court, that’s a good thing. Dallas County taxpayers pay to house inmates. This would be a way for the inmates to foot at least some of that bill, he said.

“I believe it is a fair situation for the taxpayers and the victims in this community,” Cantrell said.

County staff, meanwhile, see the idea as a way to free up resources. The crowds of friends and family who currently line up outside the jail six times a week create a lot of work for the county. Inmates have to be transferred from their cells. Visitors must be vetted and sent through security. And the meetings must be supervised.

“It is a huge undertaking,” said County Administrator Darryl Martin.

With video visitation, Securus would handle the logistics and free up jailers for other work.

With no limits on the number of chats, however, $10 for each 20-minute session can add up fast, advocacy groups said. Families that are already suffering could begin racking up monthly bills of hundreds of dollars.

“This is a regressive tax on the poor,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Institute.

Critics say they are equally troubled by possible restrictions on face-to-face visits, though it’s unclear exactly how it would work in Dallas. A spokesman for Securus didn’t return phone calls and emails seeking comment. Sheriff’s employees declined to comment on the details. Other county officials said logistics are still being finalized.

But the contract’s wording seems to suggest that face-to-face visits could be banned. In-person visitation hours have been canceled or reduced in other counties that deal with Securus, including controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail in Maricopa County, Ariz.

Dallas County purchasing officials asked about the company’s intentions during the bidding process, but Securus didn’t directly answer.

“Securus will work with Dallas County to determine what visitation policies would need to be adjusted in your operating environment,” the company wrote in one proposal. “Anytime you implement new technology such as video visitation, operational processes need to be adjusted to account for the change in environment.”

The company said the “real benefit” of its system is only realized if it removes “traffic from the facility lobby.” Besides, the company said, most visitors will actually save money.

“Between the cost of gas, parking and time missed from work, as well as removing children from the waiting areas of jails, most will readily embrace the opportunity to visit from home,” the company said.

Inmate advocates disagreed, saying face-to-face meetings with children, parents and spouses are important. Maintaining those ties is key to rehabilitation, they said.

Sitting outside the jail Thursday, Leo Arrigia said he has experienced that firsthand. He was visiting a friend with his mother that day. But he has been on the other side of the visitation room, too.

“You need to see them in person,” he said. “It is different seeing someone through the glass instead of the glass on your phone.”

But Dallas resident Melbin Hawkins said he supports the video visitation idea. He visits his nephew twice a week in the jail, but it’s difficult to make the trek downtown. He said he’d love to do those visits from home, where he wouldn’t have to wait outside in the heat for half an hour.

“We are at the mercy of the weather,” he said.

Would he miss seeing his nephew in person? Not really.

“I can’t touch him anyway,” he said.

©2014 The Dallas Morning News

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