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Judge-elect Eckhardt takes aim at jail video system

Friday, November 14, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Incoming Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt says one of the many items on her “to-do” list when she takes office in January is to take on the county jail’s policy of limiting almost all family visits with inmates to a video conferencing system. Eckhardt says she would like to restore face-to-face visits.

Eckhardt, elected last week to replace retiring County Judge Sam Biscoe, outlined the major points of her agenda coming into office in a wide-ranging conversation this week with Austin Monitor Publisher Mike Kanin on Austin Monitor Radio, a weekly news and talk show on KOOP 91.7 FM. During that conversation, she brought up her long-standing concerns about the jail’s visitation policies.

“I am very much a fan of looking at new technologies in order to reduce our costs and increase our efficiency but I think that preventing loved ones from visiting each other, face-to-face, is a bridge too far,” she told the Monitor. “There is a fee attached to that as well as a commission — kind of a kickback — to the county, which (I find) unsavory.”

Eckhardt, a veteran of Travis County politics,  served two terms in Precinct 2 on the Commissioners Court from 2006 to earlier this year, when she resigned to run for the judge’s seat.

She says Sheriff’s Department officials promised her and rest of the Court that when adding video conferencing equipment to the county jail, they would retain the ability for inmates to visit face-to-face with their families.

She said jail officials ended the in-person visitation policy about a year ago, and come January, she plans to take a hard look at the contract the Sheriff’s Office has with Securus Technologies, which provides the system.

Under the system, families pay about $20 for a 20-minute video visit with an inmate. (Commissioners temporarily lowered the fee to $10 in August.) Securus, which installed and maintains the equipment at its own expense, gives the county a 23 percent cut of that fee. The company holds dozens of similar contracts with cities and counties across the country.

According to a transcript of the Oct. 30, 2012 Commissioners meeting, where plans for the installation of the video system were discussed, Sheriff’s Department’s Major Darren Long assured Court members — including Eckhardt — that, “video visitation is just another option for those who are incarcerated in our facilities,” he said. “This would be another opportunity; we’re not changing anything of what we’re doing. You can still come and do your free visits the traditional way.”

Since that time, corrections officials have reconstructed portions of the Del Valle jail complex to add bed capacity. The jail’s administrator, Major Wes Priddy, said Thursday that in the process, they reduced the space available for in-person jail visits and eliminated what he called a “security problem” by eliminating a “conduit” where inmates had to be escorted to and from the visitation room through an open inmate area.

“We went with the video system for a reason,” Priddy said. “The conduit was a constant security problem and because of that, in-person visits were hard to manage. Sometimes families had to wait for three to three-and-a-half hours to see their family member.”

He said that going almost entirely to a video system in May 2013 has saved the county a great deal in terms of manpower and made the jail complex a safer place. He added that going back to the in-person visitation system would be costly.

“We would have to build out those areas again and hire more people to staff them,” Priddy said. “It would be an expensive proposition.”

Priddy added that he and the rest of the Sheriff’s Office staff welcomed the opportunity to work with the new judge on issues.

Eckhardt says she plans to have Commissioners re-examine the video system and consider their options.

“I want to look at what changes we can made to restore in-person visits,” she said. “I think we can work with Securus to make some changes in the contract. And if not, we can always cancel it and rebid.”

According to the county’s purchasing department, Securus’s contract with the county runs to October 2016, with annual options for renewal.

This is not the first time the jail video system has caused controversy. In January, the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a formal complaint with the county over implementation of the video system, seeking to restore families’ ability to see their loved ones in person. Commissioners discussed the matter with Sheriff’s Department officials but took no action.

In April, the Texas Civil Right Project filed a lawsuit against the Travis County Sheriff’s Department, the Travis County Attorney’s office and the District Attorney’s office after allegations surfaced that prosecutors were getting recordings of conversations between inmates and their attorneys in violation of the attorney-client privilege. TCRP attorney Brian McGivern said Thursday that there has been little progress in the case, which he says is currently bogged down in filings and motions, with no hearing set yet.

Eckhardt will assume her duties as Travis County Judge in early January.

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