Monday, January 12, 2015

Squeeze in a visit? Weekly visitation hours at Harris jail 1/4 those in Tarrant

Here are a few relevant data on inmate visitation from Houston and around the state as reported by James Pinkerton at the Houston Chronicle (Jan. 7)
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.

"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.
On the case for maximizing visitation opportunities:
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.

"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.
In this case, it was Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia who reduced visitation hours in Harris County to among the  lowest among large Texas jurisdictions:
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.

Civil rights advocate Amin Alehashem, staff attorney and regional director for the Texas Civil Rights Project-Houston, expressed concern over limited jail visits.
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?

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.

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.
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.


Lee said...

Lawhern is right, I have been there and the place is a zoo. Inmates and their visitors have to get up and close to the window to hear or speak through the sound holes. Because one can barely hear everyone just yells louder and then resorts to smuggling in writing instruments (which are forbidden) and writing on hands, accumulated paper or paper towels and holding that up to the window for the inmate to view. Heaven knows what kind of bacteria reside on the windows with everyone's spit and who knows what else. The problem is compounded when people bring children to the visit that scream cant behave and act more like zoo animals. The only solace is that one knows that the prosecutors are not listening in on these visits because even they couldn't understand the shouting and yelling done by various sugar daddies, pimps, homies, baby mammas, brodas, and hoodies. The phones would be a good solution though not much more sanitary.

Anonymous said...

Another good reason not to go to jail, if you ask me.

Unknown said...


Alan Bernstein said...

Indeed, the fuzzy math behind the conclusion that visitation hours in Houston are "the most restrictive" is based on the assumption that in-person and by-video are the same experience. We'd disagree and have no plans to eliminate the former. Also, despite the article's implications, plans to improve communication were acted upon well before the reporter inquired. Also, have the jail's inmates are out in 72 hours and two thirds of the inmates are awaiting disposition of their case, so comparing it to rehabilitation methods at prisons is dubious. Alan Bernstein, HCSO

Alan Bernstein said...


He's Innocent said...

According to my basic math, 21 hours visitation time over 4 days leaves approximately 5.25 inmates able to use each visit booth each day. I do not know how many Harris has, but it sure seems that the "half" that do NOT get out in 72 hours (Mr. Bernstein), that only a miniscule number of the remaining 4,350 could ever get a visit each week, let alone two! And video visitation is a money making scam, sucks, and has been shown to likely INCREASE jail security issues, not decrease it as in person visitation does. As Grits has said before, video visitation is not a substitute for in person visits. Maintaining the communication and contact is VITAL for any successful re-entry!

Mr. Bernstein said that half are released within 72 hours anyway. Wah? (As Mr. Stein said) Well, that 72 hours can mean the difference to a tenuous relationship! I have seen the partner pack all their belongings within 3 days and abandon their partner. Took their child too. How can that NOT be a problem?

Last, remember, ALL of you are guilty of a crime just about every day. You could commit vehicular homicide on your way home from work today. How would you communicate to your spouse/partner/parents your regret/horror/defense in such conditions? To say nothing of effectively communicating with your attorney, IF you are lucky to get one to come meet you before bailing out (or trial for that matter).

In Texas, and especially Harris County, You Can Beat The Rap, But You Cant Beat The Ride. Grits is right that Harris County's visitation policy is a very serious problem for such a huge jail as theirs.

Grits on video visitation:

And Texas Criminal Justice Coalition on Video Visitation
**Note there is a link to a research study on that page

When YOU or your loved one gets arrested, report back to us and tell us how you feel about these issues! Till then, SHUSH, you heartless bastards!

The Homeless Cowboy said...

So they said they didnt restore visitation becase the community didnt complain, so if nobody bitches, I don't have to do what is right?

Polunsky Death Row-Voice of the Voiceless said...

Complaints have been lodged and the sheriff's department would have to have their head in the sand not to know this. It is a zoo in the County and although I do not know the exact figures of how many people on stay there for 72 hours, I do know that many stay there for months. Harris county is filthy (sanitation wise) and shows no regard to better anything. I would imagine that Harris County does have the personnel to allow more hours to visit--they are just too lazy to implement it.

Anonymous said...

I jus want my husband home so I won't have 2 go threw dis its jus 2 much fa me