Austin, TX - Last night HB 549 was filed, making the legislation official law. Authored by Dallas Representative Eric Johnson, and Houston Senator John Whitmire, HB 549 clarifies existing county jail rules stating that the two weekly 20-minute visits afforded to all people in jail are to happen in-person and face-to-face. The current policy has been in place since 1993.
The legislation responds to a trend of video “visitation” sweeping its way through county jails across the country as sheriffs and counties look for ways to save costs and staffing resources. The passage of this legislation sends a clear message that Texas legislators understand that allowing technology or other barriers to in-person, face-to-face contact during incarceration can threaten family bonds, a factor well-known to lead to positive outcomes, particularly in terms of lowering rates of recidivism. In the vast majority of Texas counties, because of this law, face-to-face visits cannot be replaced, which is a major victory for families with incarcerated loved ones.
However, the new law also includes a controversial “grandfathering” amendment by Representative Garnet Coleman (District 147 - Houston) that exempts some counties from complying with the “in-person, face-to-face” aspect of the bill if that county “has incurred significant design, engineering, or construction costs to provide visitation…by September 1, 2015.” Approximately 24 county jails in Texas are currently eligible for the exemption.
Advocates and supporters of this legislation are concerned about the amendment, especially since some of the exempted counties have large populations of people that will be negatively impacted with the video-only model. Further, the September 1st deadline leaves time for other counties not currently eligible for the exemption to become so.
Lauren Johnson, a lead organizer with Grassroots Leadership on this campaign states, “This is an important first step, and we are grateful to all of our partners and advocates for the dedication they have shown to helping to get this passed into law. However the fight is not over! Now it is time for local communities to step up and vocalize support for face-to-face visits. Texas families deserve better.”