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Sheriff’s office defends no in-person jail visitation policy

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Officials with the Travis County Sheriff’s Department defended their policy Tuesday of limiting family visits with Travis County Jail inmates to a for-profit video visitation system, saying that the change in policy was for security reasons and that video visitation is a “best practice” in the criminal justice industry.


The presentation was requested by County Commissioners, who heard from two civil rights groups last week about a number of problems with the county ending in-person family visits at the jail. Representatives of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and Grassroots Leadership told commissioners Jan. 14 that the video-only system, which costs families $20 for 20 minutes in most cases, presents a financial and social hardship for many families of inmates. They were also concerned about how revenues from the system were being used and the possibility that recordings of meetings could be used to violate attorney-client privilege.


Some court members had expressed concern over changes in the system, particularly in light of statements made by Sheriff’s Office officials at the time the contract was proposed that the video system would be an alternative form of visitation, not the only one.


Major Darren Long, administrator of the Travis County Jail, told commissioners in a presentation that the video system serves as a security measure at the facility.


“The main duty that I have as jail administrator is to run a safe and secure jail,” he said. “That means protecting the public from those who the courts have decided should be incarcerated. But it’s also my duty to protect those who are within the jail, and that is the main reason and goal for inmate video visitation.”


The system, installed in 2012 by Securus Technologies at its expense, allows families to come to the Visitation Center in Del Valle and visit inmates for free over terminals installed there, or they can pay a fee to link up over the Internet with the system to visit with their family member. Attorneys may use either the video system or visit with inmates in person in the jail.


Long said the county began installing video visitation equipment in the jail in 2008, and has operated a system for some inmates, particularly those in maximum security, ever since. He said moving dangerous inmates from their cell block to a visitation area presented a number of security risks that having a video system eliminates.


He said video visitation is modern trend in criminal justice.


“A lot of the big jails in Texas and across the nation have gone to video for the exact reason,” he said. “In 2012, when the contract came in from Securus (Technologies), and it was discussed in this court, I was asked if we were going to continue traditional visits. What I meant when I answered that, because I had been dealing with that since 2009, was that people could come out to Del Valle and visit for free over the video. At that time, most of the inmates were already doing video visitations.”


Long said the system saves the families’ money by not having to drive to the jail and spend time waiting for a visit. He also said it saves the county money and allows them to provide thousands move visits than were possible with in-person meetings.


“This is best practices among large jails across the county,” he said. “Most large jails across the state are going to video systems, including Harris County, which just began installing a system.”


However, much of what Long told the Commissioners ran counter to what Brian McGiverin, an attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, told them last week.


“What he (Long) is saying is just baloney,” McGiverin said. “He more or less had to justify what they are doing to the commissioners, but he wasn’t able to give one instance of a security problem that arose with in-person visits. Of course you restrict those people who are dangerous, but the vast majority of people in the jail are in for non-violent crimes. It just doesn’t make sense. He’s selling them a bill of goods.”


Some of Long’s other comments did not seem to square with the facts. Despite his claim that large jails across Texas were using or planning to use a video visitation system, a Monitor reporter’s Internet search of jails in the state’s other large counties, including Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, Nueces, and El Paso, showed that all them currently allow in-person visits or through-a-glass-barrier visit. None of the counties had any information on video visitation in their jails. In addition, a call to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found that none of the state’s prisons either had a video system or had any plans to install one.


Also, a search of the Securus website showed that the company only has video visitation systems installed in four Texas jails, in Travis, Hays, Wilson and Hopkins counties.


In his presentation Jan. 14, McGiverin 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.


He also expressed concern over reports that Securus had recorded some conversations between attorneys and their clients and provided that information to prosecutors.


“They didn’t really deal with the financial part of the equation,” McGiverin said. “It appears that they didn’t really want to address that, probably because it’s a revenue stream that they don’t want to give up.”


He also said TCRP is considering legal action against the county and Securus based on evidence it has gathered regarding the violations of attorney-client privilege using the system. He said he expects to make an announcement on that later in 2014.


Commissioners had few questions for Long at the end of his presentation. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty asked what percentage of prisoners and their families had requested in person visits. Long gave an evasive answer, steering the conversation back to the fact that he believed many other jails were using a video system. County Judge Sam Biscoe asked how long the county’s contract ran, and Long stated that it had between 3 and 5 more years to go so that Securus, which paid to install the system, could get its money back.


No one on the dais expressed an interest in exploring the issue further at later date.

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