Austin, TX — Today the Texas Legislature’s House Committee on County Affairs heard testimony on House Bill 549, which clarifies Texas’ standards on visitation at the state’s county jails, guaranteeing prisoners two 20-minute face-to-face, non-contact visits per week, and ensuring that video chats are not considered visits. Grassroots Leadership, along with a dozen local and national advocacy groups and individuals, provided testimony in support of HB 549.
In the absence of clarity on current visitation standards, 13 Texas counties, presumably believing they are in compliance with the law, have wholly eliminated all face-to-face visits for families and their incarcerated loved ones and have replaced visits with a video chat service that charges users up to $20 for 20 minutes of use. Ten additional Texas counties currently offer video chats as an ancillary service to people wishing to see their loved ones but who are unable or choose not to visit in person. Significant technology glitches, poor customer service, cost of use and misuse of the technology have led to three lawsuits in two of the 13 counties where family members of incarcerated people have no choice but to use the service. Families in other counties have experienced similar hardships.
In a letter to Securus Technologies, a Dallas-based video chat service, a mother whose son is incarcerated at Hays County Law Enforcement Center shares, “Tonight, when I logged into Securus to schedule my weekly video chat with my son, I found that the rate has increased 63% since last week, the last time I arranged a video chat. I am appalled at this rate increase. What industry is so unregulated that it can get away with a fee increase that is so substantial?” Her letter also cites multiple attempts at receiving refunds for dropped and poor quality calls, to no avail.
Research has proven that face-to-face contact has significant positive impact on the likelihood of recidivism as well as the emotional wellness of family members working support their incarcerated loved ones. However, video chatting alone with no face-to-face contact impedes that bond. "I have a newborn son, I am going to school and working. We tried the video meetings from home but a baby doesn't understand what a computer screen is...It's just been a nightmare, it has put a lot of stress on our family,” said a woman whose husband was incarcerated at Denton County Jail.
“While we believe that utilizing technology to enhance the ability of family and loved ones to see people who are incarcerated is a good thing, our research found that cost, technological shortcomings, and breeches of prisoners’ rights render current video chat technology a barrier rather than a gateway to quality, meaningful visits between individuals. Furthermore, no such technology should ever be used to garner profit on the backs of individuals who are already bearing the financial burden of supporting an incarcerated loved one,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles, director of Grassroots Leadership’s Criminal Justice Programs. “Many of these people are sitting in county jail because they cannot afford to bond out. To charge their family members to have contact with them is unconscionable. Texas lawmakers should immediately pass legislation that restores face-to-face visitation at all county jails, and prevents counties from ever utilizing technology to remove this right.”