Now, that do-gooder pretense has been abandoned. Increasingly, county jails shifting to video visitation are eliminating face to face visits entirely - as is happening in Bastrop County this month and Travis County did last year - so a private vendor can charge families for the privilege of communicating with jail inmates. With 20/20 hindsight, it's clear I wasn't cynical enough, failing to foresee that counties and companies would seek to monetize families' visits with incarcerated loved ones the same way that they gouged them on phone calls before the FCC reined them in.
Here's a brief fact sheet on video visitation from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition adapted from a longer report (pdf) they published last month along with the group Grassroots Leadership. (I'd linked to coverage from the Texas Observer when the report first came out, but apparently not the underlying document.) Check out TCJC's observations concerning Travis County's video visitation program below the jump.
The mantra by officials, in jurisdictions from Orange County to Memphis to Minneapolis is all the same – video-only visitation policies will make for safer institutions and reduce contraband. However, a review of data received through Open Records Requests from Travis County, which has the 5th largest day-to-day jail population in Texas, refutes those assumptions. Travis County eliminated all in-person visits in May of 2013, and its phone and video services are provided by Securus.Correlation is not causation so it's impossible to say definitively from these data that eliminating in-person visitation caused inmates to engage in violence at greater rates, but it doesn't seem like a stretch to imagine it could have been a causal factor.
- Disciplinary infractions in the Travis County Correctional Complex have climbed from approximately 820 in May of 2012, to 1,160 in April of 2014. The facility averaged 940 disciplinary infractions per month for the year before the May 2013 elimination and 1,087 disciplinary infractions per month after that event.
- Disciplinary cases for possession of contraband in the facility showed an overall 54 percent increase from May 2013 through May 2014.
- Inmate on inmate assaults had a 20 percent increase between May 2012 and May 2014.
- And most troubling, inmate on staff assaults immediately doubled after elimination of in-person visits, going from three in April to six in May, climbing to seven in July, and topping out at eight in April of 2014 with drops in between.
- Another reason for the introduction of video visits is the claim that it frees up staff to perform other duties. This ignores the fact that, as the numbers of video visits dramatically jumps, the number of staff needed to monitor conversations also jumps, unless jail officials see no need to monitor conversations that may include threats, escape plans, or other criminal activities.
Grits still favors video visitation as a supplement to traditional, face to face visits, but not at the expense of them and not as a profiteering ploy.
MORE: See the Austin Statesman's coverage (11/6) of the new video-only visitation policy in Bastrop County.