Thanks to the Texas Civil Rights Project, Grassroots Leadership recently learned about and testified against the removal of in-person visits at the Travis County Jail. This harmful policy has limited all visiting rights to computer-based interactions even if loved ones physically visit the jail. The provider of the video conferencing technology is a private Dallas-based company, Securus, which makes $30 million each year on contracting call and video visitation services with jails and prisons.
The video “visitation” system, which costs $20 for 20 minutes, puts additional financial hardship on families, has a history of not working but still charging users, and has been used to violate attorney-client privilege through the recording and sharing of conversations.
The Travis County Commissioner’s Court expressed concern over the way in which Securus is being utilized, sharing that the contract was approved based on the Sheriff Office’s statement that the service was to be only an alternative form of visitation. In response to the Court’s concerns, the Sheriff’s Office was asked to testify on Securus’ use in Travis County. The administrator of the Travis County Jail, Darren Long, stated that the change was solely for security reasons and claimed it as a “best practice” in criminal justice, yet the Sheriff’s Office receives 23% of the “visitation” fees.
Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, told the Austin Monitor:
“What he (Long) is saying is just baloney. [...] He more or less had to justify what they are doing to the commissioners, but he wasn’t able to give one instance of a security problem that arose with in-person visits. Of course you restrict those people who are dangerous, but the vast majority of people in the jail are in for non-violent crimes. It just doesn’t make sense. He’s selling them a bill of goods.”
The Austin Monitor author pointed out that no other Texas jail or prison has entirely restricted all in-person visits, a further contradiction of Long’s statement that this is a “best practice” in criminal justice. In fact, criminal justice research shows that in-person visits are a crucial component to rehabilitation.
The burdens and violations families are experiencing in Travis County due to Securus services are not unfamiliar throughout the United States.
Securus: A History of Misuse, High Rates, and Poor Service
Two days ago, it came to light that Securus services are being used in Alaska by the Department of Corrections to listen in and sometimes record conversations between clients and attorneys, a clear violation of attorney-client privilege. McGiverin has expressed concern over similar reports in Travis County based on gathered evidence that conversations are not only being recorded but that information is being leaked to prosecutors. “We know it’s happening based on numerous reports from the criminal defense attorneys,” said McGiverin. “We sent a letter to Securus Technologies telling them not to delete records that may be evidence of wrongdoing.”
Beyond the clear problems with violating constitutional rights, Securus charges exorbitant rates to families to either video conference or traditionally call loved ones. A 20 minute video call typically costs $20 and the Federal Communications Commission found that the company has charged up to $17 for a 15 minute phone call, with an additional $4 connection. Despite the expensive rates, the service has a history of not even working.
Dozens of articles expose that families are finding that Securus video systems do not work once they arrive to visit their loved ones, and that traditional phone calls are constantly dropped. Hundreds of complaints have been filed with Better Business Bureaus in the various states Securus operates in. In Dallas, Texas alone, 379 complaints were filed against the company, 167 of those were billing issues and 194 were for the service not working. A common experience cited was to have a call dropped and not be refunded.
In light of these issues, the Federal Communications Commission in an effort to reduce harm to families, recently set a cap of $.25 per minute, a restriction that Securus attempted to appeal in court. As of January 15th, the Court of Appeals upheld the call rates restriction. Since Securus will soon no longer be able to charge $1.13 per minute for families to talk to each other, video visitations are likely to be pursued more aggressively -- a concern for prisoner’s client-attorney rights, their ability to afford speaking with loved ones, the potential of the elimination of in-person visitation, and the likelihood that the technology will continue to fail.