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Legislature clouds future of jailhouse video-visitation policy

Friday, June 12, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Before the end of their 2015 session, the 84th Texas Legislature passed a bill that could add a new wrinkle to the standoff between the Travis County Commissioners Court and the Sheriff’s Office over the jailhouse video-visitation program.

HB 549 amends current state law to require the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to adopt new rules and standards to allow inmates at county jails a minimum of two 20-minute in-person visitations each week. However, the bill also includes language that would grandfather facilities that have “incurred significant design, engineering, or construction costs to provide prisoner visitation that does not comply” with the new procedures.

In 2009, the largest inmate housing unit at the Del Valle jail complex came online without any capacity for face-to-face visits. Since then, corrections officials have retrofitted several existing units to add more inmate capacity at the expense of visitation facilities.

Beginning in May 2013, the Sheriff’s Office implemented its current policy whereby family members pay $20 for a 20-minute video conference with Travis County inmates. The system is operated by Securus, a private company that pockets more than 75 percent of the proceeds.

Before she took office in January, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt called the system “unsavory” and declared that bringing back in-person visitations would be one of her priorities. On Wednesday, she told the Austin Monitor that “I can think of few things as traumatic as speaking with a loved one about his or her possible future incarceration through a video monitor.”

It remains unclear how HB 549 will affect county policy or whether Gov. Greg Abbott will allow it to become law. A spokesperson on Wednesday declined to say where the governor stands on the bill or if and when he would take action on it. Abbott has until June 21 to sign or veto legislation; after that, any bill he does not veto automatically becomes law.

Should the governor spare HB 549 his veto pen, it would still have to be interpreted by the Commission on Jail Standards. Pending that, the major players in Travis County are approaching cautiously any potential shift on the pitch.

The Sheriff’s Office released a statement on Wednesday after an inquiry made by the Monitor. “If the laws of this state should change, we will comply with them and ask our budget authority, our commissioner’s court, to give us the funds necessary to make our compliance happen,” said Roger Wade, the office’s senior public information officer.

Wade also noted that, per Eckhardt’s request, Sheriff Greg Hamilton submitted a budget proposal that included allowances for a re-expanded in-person visitation system. He told the Monitor that the price tag on that comes out to an extra $1 million.

In the meantime, the Texas Civil Rights Project, one of the most vocal opponents against video visitation, doesn’t see much hope in HB 549. Brian McGiverin, an attorney with TCRP, told the Monitor that the bill was much better the way it was originally written.

“People making money off video visitation were able to rally against it and pull out some of its teeth,” he said.

McGiverin said that the best chance for changing the policy will come not from the Legislature, but rather from local leadership.

“I’m modestly hopeful that we will see some sort of political resolution from the county,” he said. “That could come when we have a new sheriff or if we see some action from the County Commissioners Court.”

Pending Abbott’s decision on HB 549 and the Commissioners Court’s consideration of the million-dollar budget option to partially reinstate in-person visits, the issue will likely become a political football in the early running to replace Hamilton, who is stepping down after his current term ends in early 2017.

The three men who have so far formally filed papers in the race to replace him — TSCO Sergeant Don Rios, former Austin Police Lieutenant John Sisson and TSCO Chief Deputy Jim Sylvester — all told the Monitor on Wednesday that they would support a reinstatement of face-to-face visits.

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