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Commissioners to investigate loss of in-person jail visitation

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Several members of the Travis County Commissioners Court say they were caught off guard Tuesday when they were told that in-person family visits at the Travis County Jail have been replaced by a video system. And a majority of commissioners say they are planning to find out why.


Representatives of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and Grassroots Leadership spoke to the court Tuesday regarding their concerns about policies limiting inmates to communicating with friends and family members only by video hookup and not one-on-one. The Austin Monitor also reported the situation on Tuesday, outlining the concerns of the two civil rights groups.


Brian McGiverin with TCRP said according to a transcript of the Oct. 30. 2012 meeting where commissioners approved installing the video system, officials with the Travis County Sheriff’s Department said that the video visitation system would be added as an option to visit inmates at the jail.


“As it turns out that’s not true,” he said, “After the contract was approved, and after the technology was installed and once they are ready to flip the on switch, there is a public announcement that in-person visitation would no longer be permitted. As of that date, May 2013, it would only be video visitation.”


Kymberlie Quong-Charles with Grassroots Leadership pointed out that many of the inmates in Travis County are indigent, and their families cannot afford the $20-per- 20-minutes fee that must be paid to use the hookup.


“We were alarmed to find out that . . . family and friends wishing to use the conferencing system are charged a fee to see their loved ones,” she said. “This service is delivered by Securus Technologies, which is a for-profit corporation and the profits that are reaped from the conferencing service at Travis County are shared between Securus and the Sheriff’s Department.”


“They should not carry the weight of an arbitrary tax which will be disproportionately levied on the backs of poor people and people of color simply to line a contractor’s pockets,” she said. “They should be allowed to see their loved ones in person.”


According to the contract approved in 2012, Securus places and maintains the equipment for the video visitation system and collects 77 percent of the fees collected, an estimated $2.8 million a year. The Travis County Sheriff’s Department keeps the additional 23 percent.


A majority of the Commissioners Court said the revelations about the visitation policies took them by surprise, and that they plan to find out more about it.


“This was news to me,” said County Judge Sam Biscoe. “I had not heard about their complaint before. The jail is operated by the Sheriff’s Office, but they would not have that program if we had not approved it. And I don’t believe we would have approved it if eliminating in-person visitations had been part of it. I’m going to spend some time this week talking to some folks and try to get to the bottom of it.”


Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez also said she believes that commissioners would not have approved the contract knowing that it would end in-person jail visits. Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd said he plans to review the video and transcript of the 2012 meeting where the contract was approved and go forward from there.


“I want to find out what the facts are here,” he said. “We may need to talk with some of the Sheriff’s Department staff to find out what is going on.”


All three commissioners said they planned to investigate the matter this week, and might put it on the Jan. 21 agenda. Commissioners Ron Davis and Gerald Daugherty could not be reached for comment.


TCRP’s McGiverin told the Austin Monitor that he was surprised at the lack of reaction from the commissioners during his presentation Tuesday morning.


“Frankly, I had expected a few more questions,” he said. “Only one of the commissioners (Bruce Todd) asked me for specific information about when the original contract was approved. However, I am optimistic that the information we provided them will be an impetus for them to change the policy.”


The two Democratic candidates for County Judge also weighed in on the issue. Andy Brown said that while he thinks the general concept of video visitation could be a good thing, it should not be the only way to visit inmates.


“I do not support the elimination of one-on-one visits for inmates and their families,” he said. “I think that should remain as an option.”


Sarah Eckhardt, who was on the court when the 2012 vote was taken, said she understood at the time that the county would maintain regular, in person visiting hours.


“At the time, I stated ‘if the new video conferencing system increases family ties and boosts quality interaction with defense attorneys, public safety and justice will be better served,’” she said. “This move is in conflict with statements made to the Court, and it is out of step with the intent of other investments the Court has made.”


In addition, she noted that the elimination of in-person visitation is “out of step with the intent of other investments the Court has made. For example, the County recently partnered with the State to build a visitation center at the State Jail facility on FM 969 to accommodate loved ones traveling to visit inmates there. Certainly the Court would not have made that investment for visiting State Jail inmates if it intended to deny all in-person visitation of County Jail inmates.”


TCRP and the Grassroots leadership specifically requested that commissioners ask Sheriff’s Department officials why in-person visits were discontinued, make all financial reports filed by Securus to the county available to the public and find out how the Sheriff’s Department uses the 23 percent of fees it collects and redirect some or all of those fees to pay for video visitations for indigent inmates.

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