(AUSTIN, Texas) — September 1st marks the first day of the fiscal year in Texas, as well as the effective date of new laws passed by the 84th legislative session. HB 549, which clarifies existing rules for visiting policies at Texas’ county jails, will now help assure that incarcerated people receive a minimum of two 20-minute in-person, face-to-face visits per week. The legislation, authored by State Senator John Whitmire and State Representative Eric Johnson, was introduced in response to a growing trend of replacing in-person visits with video visits between incarcerated people and their loved ones.
HB 549 sets a national precedent and represents a clear understanding by Texas lawmakers of the importance of in-person, face-to-face interaction between people behind bars and their communities in the free world. However, an exemption that grandfathers roughly 30 Texas counties from complying with the new law, thereby allowing video-only visitation policies to remain intact, remains a major blemish.
“Lawmakers, law enforcement, families and communities should be making every effort to ensure that incarcerated people and their loved ones have access to quality and robust visiting opportunities, because research shows clearly that connection to the free world is a key factor in positive recidivism rates. Disembodied video visits compromise the quality of these interactions,” said Lauren Johnson, Grassroots Leadership’s criminal justice fellow. “Grassroots Leadership and its partners will continue to work in Travis County and statewide to protect the rights of incarcerated people to visit with their loved ones in person.”
Margarita McAuliffe, founder of Mothers Act for Criminal Justice Reforms in San Antonio shared, “The National Institute of Corrections has stated in its guide Video Visiting In Corrections: Benefits, Limitations, and Implementation Considerations, that in-person visits are a best practice that should continue in all correctional settings when possible. They say that, when video visits are utilized as an ancillary option, the benefits of traditional visits are maintained and maybe even strengthened. The Texas Legislature also agrees on the importance of keeping in-person visits at county jails. Why, then, should a county that is still implementing them be allowed to discontinue them? Why not do as the NIC recommends and allow families both options?”
Awareness of the threats to visiting policies at county jails is gaining momentum statewide and proving to be a key issue in upcoming Sheriff’s races. In Travis County, where the Sheriff and County Commissioners are actively working on a plan to restore in-person visitation, many of the candidates for Sheriff in the 2016 election have stated that they would return in-person visitation if elected.
Josh Gravens of Texas CURE remarked, “I am glad Texas leads the nation in adopting the first law of its kind, one that will protect face-to-face visitation for families. As HB 549 becomes law and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards refines the policy and set the standards for exempted counties, we will be there watching and working to ensure that even in exempted counties, families are supported in fighting for in-person visits.”
As of August 31st the following counties had file requests to receive exemptions from HB 549. According to Brandon Wood, Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, two of these counties do not comply with the criteria for exemption, and a third is still being examined. Those counties have not been disclosed.
Fort Bend County
Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works to end prison profiteering and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.
Kymberlie Quong Charles