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Tennessee Prisoners File Lawsuit Challenging Video Visitation Policy at County Jail

by Chad Marks

In April 2014, then-Sheriff James “J.J.” Jones implemented a video visitation system at the Knox County, Tennessee jail through a contract with Securus Technologies. The video system coincided with the elimination of in-person visits between prisoners and their family members.

Remote video visitation costs $5.99 per half-hour. Prisoners’ families and friends can visit for free once a week if they reserve a kiosk at the downtown jail. Securus also provides tablets that prisoners can use to access a closed server that is not directly connected to the Internet, at a cost of $4.99 per day for a “gold pass.” Prisoners must use the tablets to access law library resources. Securus pays a “commission” kickback of 50% of the revenue it receives to Knox County. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.23].

The lawsuit contends that the ban on in-person visits violates the prisoners’ rights under the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Some of the claims raised in the class-action suit are that the video system malfunctions and leaves prisoners staring at blank screens. When that happens, the $5.99 fee is not refunded to the visitor. At other times, the video visits end before the allotted time expires.

Additionally, obtaining a tablet is sometimes impossible due to excessively long wait times at the jail; there also have been problems with the tablets not being charged or malfunctioning. All of these issues thwart prisoners’ ability to communicate with their families.

Face to Face Knox, a local advocacy group, issued a report in January 2018 that strongly criticized the video-only visitation system at the jail and the kickbacks paid to the county.

The lawsuit notes that maintaining family relationships during incarceration improves the chances for prisoners to successfully return to the community once released. The video visitation system creates barriers for prisoners and their families to stay in touch; further, many family members are poor and cannot afford remote video visits. To see their incarcerated loved ones they must travel to the jail, where they use a video kiosk instead of in-person visits.

While the lawsuit centers on the video visitation system, it also alleges many other problems at the Knox County jail, including overcrowding, lack of fresh air and a host of other issues. It seeks to end long-term lockdowns and reinstate in-person visits.

The case remains pending, with the court yet to rule on the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification. See: Amble v. Spangler, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:18-cv-00538.

Prison Legal News sued the Knox County jail in 2015 over its postcard-only mail policy; county officials agreed to settle that case in April 2018 for $87,000 in damages and attorney fees, plus rescinded the postcard-only policy. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.22; Nov. 2015, p.58]. 


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Related legal case

Amble v. Spangler