Scrutiny over Travis County's exemption from jail visits, while County deliberates budget

New developments in the effort to restore in-person visitation at the Travis County Jail raise eyebrows on Sheriff Greg Hamilton's intentions to work with the community to ensure that families and their incarcerated loved ones are able to remain reunited.  A reevaluation of the county's exemption from a new law that mandates counties provide visits in-person and face-to-face made headlines as the impending Sheriff's race ramps up this morning in Austin.  Concurrently, Grassroots Leadership staff continue its efforts with the Travis County Commissioners Court to fund a budget that moves the county toward restoring in-person visits expediently.  The following is Kymberlie Quong Charles' testimony:

Thank you Judge Eckhardt and County Commissioners for your time this morning.

My name is Kymberlie Quong Charles and I am with Grassroots Leadership, one of the organizations that has been working for almost two years to see the restoration of in-person visitation at the Travis County Jail.  I’m here today to respectfully ask the Court to reconsider proposals to fund in-person visits, as our understanding is that all proposals on this item were voted down during your September 9th voting session.  I know the Court has spent a lot of time already debating the issue, so I will attempt to be brief.
 
Our approach to this effort for the past two years has been to be a good faith partner and liaison between the Court, the Sheriff’s Office, and the community that is impacted by video-only visitation policies in Travis County.  However, our confidence in the Sheriff’s Office sharing the perspective of good faith partnership is dwindling.  That said, I’d like to address two points in response to the conversation that the Court had on September 9th:
  • The proposal that the Sheriff’s Office presented for the restoration of in-person visitation came with a significant price tag, one that may have been designed to be unpalatable to the court.  We share Judge Eckhardt’s position for the most comprehensive and robust opportunities for families to remain united while a loved one is incarcerated, and we can also appreciate the reality of the Court’s responsibility to make wise budget decisions.  However, the discussion on this item, largely guided by the Sheriff Office’s advocacy of the most expensive option, we believe led the framing of the issue into a zero sum game, an all-or-nothing approach to the issue that ultimately led to no action whatsoever on moving toward restoration of in-person visits.  Frankly, we think this unconscionable given the fact that there are face-to-face visitation terminals that visitors and their loved ones at Del Valley could be using today.  We believe wholeheartedly that there are other options, less expensive options, options that create other financial offsets that this court should  consider in order to make in-person visitation a reality, and we would like to continue being your partner in that effort.     
  • The letter from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that exempts Travis County from compliance with HB549, the new law that defines a visit at county jails as in-person and face-to-face, also impacted this debate.  In light of the significant price tag of the Sheriff’s proposal, the Court raised questions about why the budget item needed to be considered at all, understandably.  I’m sure you are all aware by now that Travis County's exemption has come under scrutiny and that TCJS is reconsidering the County’s eligibility for the exemption based on the financial documentation that they were provided by the Sheriff’s Office.  In case you are unaware of the criteria for the exemption, the law states that counties that incurred significant cost to install video visitation technology may be eligible for the exemption.  In this room, almost three years ago, Commissioner Davis questioned the County’s IT Director Walter Lagrone, about the cost to Travis County to install video visitation technology at the jail, and Mr. Lagrone stated repeatedly, the cost to the county would be zero.  I’m happy to provide citation of the transcript (October 30, 2012 at 10:18 AM).   And I probably don’t need to remind you that a representative from the Sheriff’s Office told the same Court that implementation of video visitation technology would not change anything else about visiting policies at that facility.
The conclusion of the Court on September 9th of this year was that the Sheriff’s proposal was premature, that it needed some time to be developed.  Frankly, we do not believe that the Sheriff will take steps toward restoring in-person visits unless his hand is forced, so we are looking to you to do the right thing.  
 
I get calls at my office from individuals who heard about the September 1st implementation of HB 549, and who are wondering when they can see their loved ones at Del Valle.  In late August there was a suicide at the jail, and the media raised questions about whether a different visitation policy there may have saved her.  There are immigrant families who, because of the Sheriff’s cooperation with ICE, are seeing their loved ones for the last time through a video monitor before they are permanently deported.  
 
Please consider returning this item to your budget deliberations, and consider us a partner in figuring out a sensible, fiscally responsible way to begin restoring in-person visits expediently.
 
Thank you.