To What End, Assessing the Impact of the Knox County Jail's Ban on In-Person Visits
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To What End?: Assessing the Impact of the Knox County Jail’s Ban on In-Person Visits Face To Face Knox Knoxville, TN January 29, 2018 Introduction Since April 2014, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office has banned in-person visits at all county jail facilities. In the place of in-person visits, the Sheriff promoted a new “video visitation” system, requiring jail visitors to interact with residents through a video kiosk located inside the facility. Friends and family could also contact residents through a remote video call, but they could do so at the cost of $5.95 [now $5.99] per visit, assuming they had the necessary technology. When the ban was initiated, the Sheriff’s Office gave the following reasons for eliminating in-person visits: • • • • • • • • Decreased visitation traffic—requires less staff No contraband entering jail Easier on visitors (dress codes, searches, etc.) No travel to visits (for remote video calls) Lessens impact on children Benefits to disabled persons and elderly who cannot visit in person Lessens chances for violence The cost is $5.95 [in 2014], “less than two gallons of gasoline” The Sheriff did not present evidence at the time to explain the sudden shift in policy. Even three years later, when Face To Face Knox asked for empirical evidence to support these claims, the Sheriff’s Office simply claimed that its policy was “innovative,” suggesting no further evaluation was necessary. Because the Sheriff’s Office refused to provide data, Face To Face Knox conducted an open records request, seeking answers to the following questions: • How many inmate-on-inmate assaults were recorded at the Knox County Detention Facility in the three years prior to the ban, and how many have were recorded in the time since the ban? • How many inmate-on-staff assaults were recorded at the Knox County Detention Facility in the three years prior to the ban, and how many have were recorded in the time since the ban? • How many possession of contraband cases were assessed at the Knox County Detention Facility in the three years prior to the ban, and how many were assessed in the time since the ban? • How many disciplinary infractions were assessed at the Knox County Detention Facility in the three years prior to the ban, and how many were assessed in the time since the ban? One explanation--both then and now--was conspicuously absent: the video call system makes money for the County, while in-person visits do not. Under the County’s current contract with Securus Technologies, the County takes a 50% “commission” on every remote video call, which goes into the County’s general revenue fund. Because Securus pays the full cost of installing and operating the system, there is no need for the county to charge an extra fee. Face To Face Knox requested invoices to determine exactly how much revenue the county generated from commissions on the video calls. Over more than three years, Knox County has taken nearly $70,000 from individuals trying to stay in touch with their friends and loved ones. The results are clear: The ban on in-person visits makes the jail more dangerous, does nothing to stop the flow of contraband, and strips money from the pockets of families. It’s time to end the ban and give visitors the option to see their friends and loved ones face to face. TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 2 Findings PR ofi t Knox County Takes Money From Families 50 cents of every dollar paid by a friend or family member on a video call goes directly into the County’s general revenue fund. From March 2014 (when the video call system was installed), to November 2017 (the most recent month where data is available), the County collected $68,777 from commissions--an average of $1,528 a month. Under its contract with Securus, the County pays nothing to install or operate the system, so the fees are superfluous. Every dollar made by the county is one taken from friends and family who are simply trying to stay in touch with their loved ones at a difficult time. a tr n o C d n ba Banning In-Person Visits Does Not Stop Contraband The data collected shows no drop in reported cases of contraband. Prior to the ban, visitors could not have physical contact with inmates; they could only speak through a plexiglass screen. It is unclear how contraband is entering the jail, but the sheriff’s office cannot use visitors as scapegoats. An influx of contraband is not an excuse to enact punitive, anti-family policies that do nothing to solve the underlying problem. Saf ety Banning In-Person Visits Makes the Jail More Dangerous The ban has made the jail less safe for both inmates and staff. The total rate of assaults increased by an average of one assault per 100 inmates after the ban was enacted in April 2014. With a population of about 1,000 inmates at the Detention Facility, this means there are, on average, ten more assaults every month. Disciplinary infractions have also increased slightly since the ban went into place. The ban on in-person visits does not fully explain this increase, but studies have shown that it is harder to build trust and intimacy through video communications than through a personal conversation. In addition, inmates at the Detention Facility must speak to their “visitors” at pods with other inmates nearby who can eavesdrop. It should not be surprising that violence in the jail increases when inmates are deprived of any meaningful, private communications with their friends and family. TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 3 TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 4 TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 5 The Need For Visits Not only is the ban ineffective, but the benefits of in-person visits are clear. A comprehensive study of state prisons in Minnesota showed that more frequent and recent visits were associated with a decreased risk of recidivism (meaning that the more visits someone received in prison, the less likely they were to commit another crime upon release). 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. (See Appendix for sources.) prefer in-person visits. This evidence in part convinced local leaders to reinstate in-person visits. A survey of visitors in Knox County would likely produce similar results. To be clear, Face To Face Knox is not asking for video calls to be eliminated at the Knox County jail. Video calls serve as a useful alternative to in-person visits in some instances, such as when friends and families live outside of Knox County, or do not have access to transportation. If the calls are free, or priced only to recover the costs of operation, then there is no reason not to give that option to inmates and visitors. Nationally, the American Correctional AssociaThe public understands this. In December 2014, tion, the American Bar Association, and the Na13 people, including the president of the Knox- tional Institute of Corrections all support making ville chapter of the NAACP, spoke before the in-person visits available in jails. On the other Knox County Commission to in favor of restoring hand, no report conducted has found that banning in-person visits. No one spoke in favor of elimi- in-person visits is sound correctional policy. With nating in-person visits. In Texas, the Travis Coun- our findings here in Knox County, Face To Face ty sheriff’s office surveyed jail visitors, asking Knox adds one more piece of evidence indicating whether they prefer to visit in-person or through a that bans on in-person visits are counterproducvideo screen, 91 percent of respondents said they tive, ineffective, and inhumane. 1 Recommendations Immediately restore in-person visits at the Knox County jail, and work with advocates and affected invididuals to craft a visitation policy that maximizes opportunities for in-person visits, and makes the jail facilities accessible and welcoming to visiting friends and family. 2 Stop accepting commissions on video calls. Because the county did not pay to install or operate the video call system, it should take a cut that needlessly increase the costs for families. Further, the County should offer free remote video calls to individuals who cannot afford them. TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 6 Support The following local, state, and national organizations endorse the findings and recommendations in this report: • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office | Knoxville, TN Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Knoxville Chapter | Knoxville, TN Knoxville Community Step Up | Knoxville, TN East Tennessee Community Defense | Knoxville, TN University of Tennessee Student Peace Alliance | Knoxville, TN Church of the Good Sheperd | Knoxville, TN No Exceptions Prison Collective | Nashville, TN Free Hearts | Nashville, TN Southern Center for Human Rights | Atlanta, GA Prison Policy Initiative | Northampton, MA National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls | Boston, MA National Participatory Defense Network/Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project | San Jose, CA Young Women’s Freedom Center | San Francisco, CA Silicon Valley De-Bug | San Jose, CA A.L. Costa Community Development Center | Union City, CA New Beginnings Re-Entry Services | Mattapan, MA Montgomery County Community Action Development Commission | Montgomery Co., PA Juan Schwanker Fathers & Families of San Joaquin | San Joaquin, CA To What End?: Assessing the Impact of the Knox County Jail’s Ban on In-Person Visits Face To Face Knox is a grassroots coalition of citizens in Knox County who seek just and humane treatment for incarcerated individuals at the Knox County jail, and advocate for policies that improve the well-being of the incarcerated and their families. More information at face2faceknox.org Facebook/Twitter/Instagram: @F2FKnox This report was written by Tex Pasley, a Staff Attorney at No Exceptions Prison Collective. Contact him for further information at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (210) 844-8387. Julie Gautreau, Lori Labotka, and Miriam Nelson of Face To Face Knox edited previous drafts. Special thanks to Lucius Couloute and Bernadette Rabuy of the Prison Policy Initiative, for developing the visuals and providing invaluable research assistance. TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 7