For years, visits have been a frustrating experience at the Harris County Jail, where visitation policies are among the most restrictive of the state's five largest county jails. And while Harris County's jail system is the largest in Texas, with an average daily population of 8,700, it has lagged in adopting technology to improve visitation that other counties have embraced, including video visitation for inmates.On the case for maximizing visitation opportunities:
"I have to take three buses to get over here to see my husband, and they give me 15 minutes and I can't hear half of what he says," said Lawhern, who lives in Pasadena and tries to visit Trevino twice a week. Lawhern said that because she often can't hear what her husband said, she must follow up her visits with a collect phone call from her husband, yet another expense for a woman who is simply trying to support her spouse.
Ohio prison officials, in a 1999 study, noted that visitation not only helps efforts to rehabilitate inmates while they are locked up, but provides a bigger benefit after they are released.In this case, it was Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia who reduced visitation hours in Harris County to among the lowest among large Texas jurisdictions:
"The prisoner who has maintained contact with supportive individuals such as family and friends has a 'safety net' when he or she returns to the community," wrote Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio State prison system. "Family and friends provide a feeling of belonging to a group. They often help released offenders seek and find employment and conduct themselves in a positive, constructive manner after release."
In 2011, the Minnesota Department of Corrections published an exhaustive study concluding that "prison visitation can significantly improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community." The study noted that any visit reduced, by 13 percent, the risk of a new felony conviction and dropped by 25 percent the risk of violating release conditions. Visits from clergy, fathers, brothers and sisters and in-laws were the most beneficial to the inmate's future conduct after release, the study found.
Garcia cut visitation to the county jail in 2011 - from seven to four days - a move the sheriff said at the time would save $1.3 million annually in overtime pay for detention officers as the county faced a budgetary crisis. Asked why the visitation was not restored as county finances improved, Director of Public Affairs Alan Bernstein said there have been no recent complaints from the public.Of course, they have had longstanding complaints about failures of phone systems at the visitation center, according to the article, and they've yet to fix those, either. So quien sabe?
Civil rights advocate Amin Alehashem, staff attorney and regional director for the Texas Civil Rights Project-Houston, expressed concern over limited jail visits.
Regardless, visitation is handled differently in different Texas counties, according to Pinkerton's first-cut survey:
Harris County allows inmates four 20-minute visits each week, to take place during the 21 hours of visitation offered over four days.Toward the end, Pinkerton quoted a Travis County Sheriff official waxing favorably about video visitation without mentioning any of the controversy it generated, either from listening in on conversations with defense counsel or the bait-and-switch at the commissioners court which was originally told face-to-face visits would continue. Grits upbraided him mildly in the comments for not fact checking those assertions ("Google is your friend"). Otherwise, the story was a good update on an important, rapidly emerging issue.
In contrast, Tarrant County Jail inmates can receive up to two visits a day in Fort Worth lockups, where visitation is allowed seven days a week from 9 in the morning to 9 at night, or a total of 84 hours a week. The Bexar County Jail also limits visits to four days, but offers a window of 30 hours of overall visiting time during the week.
Since 1975, Texas law has required that jails provide a minimum visitation of at least two visits - one during a weekday evening and one on weekends - and several mid-sized counties, including the Neuces County Jail in Corpus Christi and El Paso jails, have limited visits to two days a week.