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Video Visitation Companies Try to Stop In-Person Visitation at Texas Jails

In one of the latest attempts to squeeze money out of those least able to afford it, companies that specialize in providing phone and video visitation services to prisoners in Texas jails on a local monopolistic basis are moving to limit or eliminate free and in-person visitation. This forces prisoners' friends and families to use expensive remote video visitation, increasing the companies' profits and the "commissions" they pay the jails. But these profits do not come cheap. The cost is measured in diminished and broken relationships between prisoners and their families--especially their children. This loss of intimate family contact leads to increased disciplinary and contraband problems.

Psychologists and prison administrators have long agreed that in-person prisoner visitation has significant benefits, including helping maintain family bonds and providing a prisoner management tool. The former leads to calmer, better behaved prisoners who are less likely to return to prison after release. The latter means that visitation is so important to prisoners that the threat of losing it as a disciplinary sanction is sufficient incentive to improve the behavior of some otherwise recalcitrant prisoners.

When free in-person visitation is eliminated and replaced with expensive video visitation, those benefits may be lost both because video visitation has less emotional impact and because people who cannot afford to pay the average fee of $10.00 per 20 minute video visit simply stop visiting. An additional issue is raised when one considers the fact that prisoners' families are often poor and thus may not own a video-visitation-capable computer or may not have a firm grasp of the digital technology used in video visitation. A significant minority of prisoners and their families speak Spanish or another non-English language as their primary language, further complicating the use of the glitchy, high-tech equipment and possibly rendering it useless for them.

In the age of Snowden, another issue raises its head. Video visits are monitored and recorded. The recordings may be used as evidence against the prisoner. This could limit the ability of families to communicate when one considers how a prisoner might answer the simple question, "What happened, son?" The Travis County Jail shared privileged calls between prisoners and their lawyers with prosecutors, raising additional constitutional concerns.

Indeed, Travis County, which includes Austin, is the prime example of video visitation gone awry. As part of its contract agreement with Securus Technologies to provide phone and video visitation services at the Travis County Jail, the jail eliminated in-person visitation, claiming it would improve jail security by reducing contraband and freeing up guards for other duties. But those claims do not match the facts. Since the start of the video­ visitation-only policy in May 2013, jail security has clearly decreased.

Overall disciplinary infractions in the jail climbed from 820 in May 2012 to 1,160 in April 2014. The number of disciplinary infractions per month in the year prior to the policy change averaged 940, since then it has averaged 1,087, an increase of 23%. Contraband disciplinary infractions grew by 54% from May 2013 through May 2014. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults increased 20% between May 2012 and May 2014. The most dramatic increase was prisoner-on­-staff assaults which immediately doubled from 3 in April 2013 to 6 in May 2013, and pealed at 8 in April 2014. Clearly, video-visitation-only policies are not good for prisoners, their families or the jails.

Source: Video Visitation: How Private Companies Push for Visits by Video and Families Pay the Price, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, October 2014;

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