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Advocacy Groups Call for End to Ban on In-person Visits at Tennessee Jail

A recent report on a ban on in-person visitation at the jail in Knox County, Tennessee concluded that the ban “makes the jail more dangerous, does nothing to stop the flow of contraband, and strips money from the pockets of families.”

In April 2014, the Knox County Jail (KCJ) eliminated in-person visits and replaced them with video calls through its contractor, Securus Technologies. Jail officials touted the $5.99 cost of a remote 30-minute video call as “less than two gallons of gasoline.” Video terminals are available at KCJ at no cost, though family members have to travel to the facility to “visit” via a video screen.

The contract with Securus pays the jail a 50 percent “commission” kickback on revenue generated from the video calls, which earned Knox County $68,777 from March 2014 to November 2017.

As part of their rhetoric in support of the in-person visitation ban, KCJ officials said it would lower violence among prisoners at the facility. Since the ban was enacted, however, the “total rate of assaults increased by an average of one assault per 100 inmates,” the report found. With an average population of about 1,000 prisoners, that equates to around 10 more assaults each month.

Further, the data from KCJ “shows no drop in reported cases of contraband,” and disciplinary infractions increased, too.

“It’s all about the money,” remarked Tex Pasley, an attorney with the No Exceptions Prison Collective. “We need to bring back in-person visitation.”

The report, issued on January 29, 2018 by Face to Face Knox, noted that “Psychologists have found that in-person visits and video calls do not provide the same quality of interaction. Even assuming the technology works perfectly, the conversation during a video call is less fluid, making it more difficult to engage in complex conversation, establish trust, develop intimacy, and create a social connection.”

The experiences of families in Knox County prove those points. First, the Securus video calling system does not always operate properly.

“You can be sitting there, and all of a sudden the screen will go all pixelated,” said Rebecca Pass, whose father was held at the Knox County Jail. “We’re robbing the children, the mothers, the grandmothers of these inmates by not allowing them visits face-to-face.”

“There’s no eye-to-eye contact, and if we move, it goes out of focus,” added Laura Barr, the mother of a KCJ prisoner. “It gets blurry and there’s a delay.”

Additionally, the lack of personal contact is seen as dehumanizing. “I can go to the zoo and see a wild animal in the flesh, but I can’t even see my own daughter,” Barr said.

Face to Face Knox is not seeking to end video calling at the jail; rather, it advocates for video calls to exist alongside in-person visitation. The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, signed on in support of the report among other local, state and national organizations. 

Sources: “To What End?: Assessing the Impact of the Knox County Jail’s Ban on In-Person Visits,” by Face to Face Knox (Jan. 2018);;;

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