Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Video visitation in jails: Despicable new funding stream makes jails less safe

When video visitation was first introduced in county jails, Grits supported it. It was pitched as a supplement to face to face visitation, a way someone could communicate with a loved one (or client) from a distance when for whatever reason they couldn't come visit them in person. Proponents insisted face to face visitation would still be possible.

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.

From TCJC:
The mantra by officials, in jurisdictions from Orange County[5] to Memphis[6] to Minneapolis[7] 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.
  • 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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Video visitation is one of a number of money making mechanisms within the jail systems designed to suck offenders and family members dry.

rodsmith said...

it's not your fault grits. You forgot the first rule of dealing with politicians and gov't stooges.

"How can you tell they are lieing?

Answer! Their lips are moving!"

He's Innocent said...

I was a participant in that press conference TCJC and Grassroots Leadership held to publicize this issue. Thank you Time Warner, Statesman, KLBJ, KXAN, and KEYE for all showing up. Thank you Scott for this posting.

My spouse was convicted in Bastrop County of an egregious and over-zealously prosecuted crime. He spent 3 months in county before being transferred to the state system. Our relationship held on by a thread during this time and the in person visits meant the world to us. They were behind glass, but being able to see the pain, the earnest apologies, the joy in each others faces during this time was INVALUABLE.

Keep in mind that those entering the state system are not allowed visits until usually 30+ days after entry, on top of a blackout for phones. Only snail mail. And that's if the family is wise enough to know about and keep checking the TDCJ website to find their family member and put money on their commissary. Then of course they have to make commissary to buy stamps. So count on between 4-6 months of not seeing your loved one from the time they are convicted. Well, unless you are rich, in which case you would not have been convicted anyway. Only the strong relationships survive, which means no support for that person during prison or upon re-entry if the relationship did not survive this assault and profiteering.

Why the hell not just take them out back of the courthouse and shoot them immediately upon conviction? That's what's coming to because the voters of this state are too busy ignoring what does not affect them. It's only a matter of time before they too will enjoy the the stigma and the trauma of felony criminal charges against them or a loved one.

Video visitation literally means the difference between paying the rent or seeing your loved one. What a choice.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe it is a moneymaker so that the everage taxpayer does not have to pay for it. The US remains one of the last countries out there where families don't have to PAY for their loved ones care in prison. Are we that good, or just that foolish.