This week Grassroots Leadership and many of our partners and allies submitted comments to the Federal Communications Commission in hopes of improving the way video "visits" are currently being offered and sold at county jails and state prisons around the country. Our comments can be viewed here. [node:read-more:link]
Advocates of jail visitation believe that incarcerated people should be allowed to maintain “in-person” contact between themselves and their loved ones.
Bexar County has proposed to eliminate in-person visitation at the Bexar County Detention Center. The alternative is to provide “video visitation” instead.
There is an organizing effort underway to keep in-person visits at BCDC. This effort began 17 months ago when Margarita McAuliffe, founder and lead organizer with Mothers Act for Criminal Justice Reforms, reached out to Diana Claitor with the Texas Jail Project and began working with other groups such as Grassroots Leadership, based in Austin. They have been working since early 2014 to restore in-person visitation at theTravis County Jail. [node:read-more:link]
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.
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. [node:read-more:link]
“This is a huge victory for everyone who has worked to return in-person visitation in Travis County!” said Lauren Johnson, Criminal Justice Fellow at Grassroots Leadership. “Giving families a choice between visiting their loved ones in person or through video should have been the policy all along.” [node:read-more:link]
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.”
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. [node:read-more:link]