#inSecurus | Ensuring Visitation for Prisoners and their Loved Ones

In January, 2014 Grassroots Leadership became aware that all visits at the Travis County Jail (TX) had been replaced by a video chat system. The company providing the video visits, Securus Technologies, was raking in enormous profits charging families up to $20 for a 20-minute off-site visit (read more of the Travis County Story here). With no other option but to "visit" through a grainy video screen, crucial ties between families and their incarcerated loved ones were being threatened.

For nearly two years, Grassroots Leadership, alongside our community allies, waged a powerful campaign led by those who have experienced video jail visits first-hand and not only brought in-person visits back to Travis County, ​but​ also passed state legislation that will prevent other counties from replacing in-person visits with video chats.   

We assert that video chats are not equivalent to in-person, face-to-face visits; visitors should be given the option whether to utilize video chatting or to see their loved one in person; and those opting to utilize video chats should be protected from being charged exorbitant rates. Visit the links below to learn more and to get involved.

RESEARCH AND RESOURCES

Watch our documentary film, which chronicles the fight for in-person jail visits in Travis County, Texas and connects the dots between private, for-profit interests and incarceration.

Report and Fact sheet co-released by Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition on video visitation at the Travis County Jail  (October 2014):

Prison Policy Initiative national report:

Related Posts

Dec 9, 2015
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Austin Monitor

County nixes revenue to save inmates money

Lauren Johnson of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit dedicated to prison reform, was on hand Tuesday to urge the commissioners to adopt the first option. She noted that the second option also contained the built-in ability to keep the current rates in case the FCC order is challenged in court.

“I think that we need to be doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because our hand is being forced,” Johnson said.

Daugherty expressed sympathy for Johnson and her cause but had reservations about simply walking away from $860,000 in revenue. “I’m not trying to be punitive to the inmates,” Daugherty said. “But I do want to be careful about just assuming that this money is not something that our Sheriff’s Office needs, because we know what their needs are going to be. And if you don’t have some kind of revenue, then it just is all on the taxpayer, and I don’t think that’s completely fair.”

Johnson stood her ground and argued that the county relies too much on incarceration. “So if we really were concerned about our tax dollars, we could be spending them on more diversion programs. Travis County leads the way in a lot of areas, but there are other things we could be doing besides locking people up and being entirely punitive,” she said.

  Read more about County nixes revenue to save inmates money

Commissioners Court lowers phone rates at Travis County Jail

(AUSTIN, Texas) —  Grassroots Leadership applauds Travis County Commissioners Court for voting to reduce phone call rates for those incarcerated at the county jail.  Utilizing its annual contract renewal with Securus Technologies, the Dallas-based company that provides phone and video visitation technology at Travis County Jail, Commissioners chose to cap rates at $1.65 per 20-minute call, a significant decrease from the current rate of $4.65.  The new rate will become effective in January 2016.  
Oct 23, 2015
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Texas Observer

Travis County Inmates to See Families Face-to-Face Again

Nearly two dozen of Texas’ 254 counties applied for an exemption. One of them was Travis County. In May 2013, the county ended in-person visitation, with help from Securus, which provided the video service at “no cost to the county” but at significant personal and financial cost to inmates and their families. Members of the Travis County Commissioners Court, which controls the county budget, have said that at the time, they were led to believe that video visitation would be a supplement to, not a replacement for, in-person visitations.

Securus pushes its “remote visitation” option as a money-saving initiative that saves public dollars on jail staff and “minimizes the dangerous and costly movement of inmates within a facility,” and advertises its video software as technology that “minimizes contraband.”

However, researchers with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit that focuses on prison reform, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that disciplinary cases for possession of contraband at the Travis County Correctional Complex increased, along with assaults and other disciplinary infractions increased after video-only visitation became the default policy in Travis County. Read more about Travis County Inmates to See Families Face-to-Face Again

Sep 30, 2015
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Austin Monitor

County approves budget, restores jail visitations

Indeed, the most significant public engagement during the budget process came last week at the first of two special hearings on the proposed tax rate. But instead of raising hackles about high taxes, the handful of speakers at the hearing urged the commissioners to restore in-person visits for inmates at county jails. Under the current policy enacted by Sheriff Greg Hamilton, most inmates can interact with friends and family only remotely through a video chat interface.

Last week’s effort, organized by the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership, turned out to be a testament to the power of democratic participation. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt responded to their activism by putting the issue on Tuesday’s agenda, and staff came prepared with two options for covering the cost of restoring in-person visits. ...

“At the end of the day, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” Lauren Johnson of Grassroots Leadership told the Austin Monitor. But, she added, Travis isn’t the only county keeping its inmates from sharing face-to-face contact with loved ones. “We’ll spend the day celebrating and then get back to work tomorrow to figure out which county we go to next.”

  Read more about County approves budget, restores jail visitations

Sep 29, 2015
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Austin American-Statesman

Travis County OKs $951 million budget, in-person jail visits

The sheriff’s office will hire 14 new employees to staff the visiting rooms, which are scheduled to open in April. The money will come primarily from savings in the sheriff’s office overtime budget, not new spending.

That funding arrangement solved a political problem that caused a similar measure to be defeated this month. Wanting to keep the county’s tax rate low enough for the average homeowner to see a cut in their tax bill next year, the commissioners on Sept. 9 voted 4-1 against a $1.1 million measure that would have increased the county’s budget for next year.

After that vote, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who was on the losing side, directed staff to look for budget-neutral solutions. At the same time, the nonprofit group Grassroots Leadership, which opposes the privatization of prison services, questioned the Texas Commission on Jail Standards on why it exempted Travis County from a new state law requiring jails to allow inmates to have up to two face-to-face visits per week.

Initially, the commission had ruled that the county was exempt because it had already spent a significant amount of money on the video system. Grassroots, however, pointed out that the funding came from the vendor, Securus Technologies, and not the taxpayers. The jail commission still has not made a ruling on whether it will remove the county’s exemption, but Eckhardt said she has been told that it would be satisfied with the new plan. Read more about Travis County OKs $951 million budget, in-person jail visits

Sep 23, 2015
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Austin Monitor

Jail visitation dominates county budget hearing

Travis County Commissioners Court held its first of three public hearings on the proposed tax rate for the next fiscal year on Tuesday evening, but instead of anxious property owners venting about affordability concerns, a determined group of inmates’ rights advocates dominated the proceedings.

...

After her presentation, the first of a series of activists organized by Austin-based prison reform group Grassroots Leadership approached the dais and called for the return of in-person visitation at Travis County jails. Under the current policy instituted by Sheriff Greg Hamilton, most inmates are able to visit with friends and family only through a video-chat interface.
After her presentation, the first of a series of activists organized by Austin-based prison reform group Grassroots Leadership approached the dais and called for the return of in-person visitation at Travis County jails. Under the current policy instituted by Sheriff Greg Hamilton, most inmates are able to visit with friends and family only through a video-chat interface. - See more at: http://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2015/09/jail-visitation-dominates-county-budget-hearing/#sthash.EBYpa6NQ.dpufAfter her presentation, the first of a series of activists organized by Austin-based prison reform group Grassroots Leadership approached the dais and called for the return of in-person visitation at Travis County jails. Under the current policy instituted by Sheriff Greg Hamilton, most inmates are able to visit with friends and family only through a video-chat interface. - See more at: http://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2015/09/jail-visitation-dominates-county-budget-hearing/#sthash.EBYpa6NQ.dpuf

After her presentation, the first of a series of activists organized by Austin-based prison reform group Grassroots Leadership approached the dais and called for the return of in-person visitation at Travis County jails. Under the current policy instituted by Sheriff Greg Hamilton, most inmates are able to visit with friends and family only through a video-chat interface.

Several of the speakers, including Doug Smith of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, gave emotional testimony that reflected their personal experiences as inmates or family of inmates.

- See more at: http://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2015/09/jail-visitation-dominates-county-budget-hearing/#sthash.EBYpa6NQ.dpuf

After her presentation, the first of a series of activists organized by Austin-based prison reform group Grassroots Leadership approached the dais and called for the return of in-person visitation at Travis County jails. Under the current policy instituted by Sheriff Greg Hamilton, most inmates are able to visit with friends and family only through a video-chat interface.

Several of the speakers, including Doug Smith of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, gave emotional testimony that reflected their personal experiences as inmates or family of inmates.

- See more at: http://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2015/09/jail-visitation-dominates-county-budget-hearing/#sthash.EBYpa6NQ.dpuf
Read more about Jail visitation dominates county budget hearing
Sep 21, 2015
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Austin American-Statesman

Ruling on county’s video-based jail visits questioned

Many jails, including Travis’, have moved in recent years to offering only video-based visitation, in which guests communicate with their incarcerated loved ones through a Skype-like monitor. The new law requires counties to maintain in-person visitation as an option but exempted counties that had already spent a significant amount implementing a video-only system. Travis County, which in 2012 approved a contract with Securus Technologies to add video capabilities to its downtown jail and the correctional complex in Del Valle, was exempted this month.

But the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which opposes the privatization of prison services, is questioning whether the county should have been granted the exemption because the Securus contract said that the company, not the taxpayers, was on the hook for the program. ...

Lauren Johnson, a criminal justice fellow with Grassroots Leadership, said the group is not contesting whether the law requires in-person visitation at those two facilities but believes it should be made available for inmates who live in the rest of the buildings. ...

“Video is a perfectly reasonable option,” Quong Charles said. “The fact that at Travis County it is the only type of visitation available to anybody — and on top of that, the fact that the county and a for-profit corporation are making money on its usage — we don’t think that that’s kosher. We don’t think that that’s a smart way or a just way.”

 

  Read more about Ruling on county’s video-based jail visits questioned

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