Dallas County Commissioners’ Court approved in a 4-1 vote, a proposal to introduce a for-profit video visitation system for prisoners housed in the county’s jails. Family members electing to use the video system instead of an in-person visit will have to pay a fee of $10 for a 20 minute chat. The program is not mandatory at this time, but there was concern expressed during the Court’s debate that the Sheriff could make the system the only option for prisoner’s at some point in the future.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was the only member of the court who voted against the proposal according to the Dallas Morning News. Opponents of the deal, the County and Dallas-based Securus Technologies, expressed concern that this will exploit vulnerable inmates and their families. Dallas County will receive a portion of the $10 fee in the form of a commission from Securus. The percentage rate for the commission is not known at this time; however, Dallas County currently receives a commission of 60 percent on phone calls made from the jail under a program that is also run by Securus. That commission amounted to $2.8 million from collect calls made from the jail.
“I believe this contract is predatory,” said Anthony Bond, one of about two dozen people who spoke out against it at Tuesday’s meeting. “This is preying on poor people.”
“Reducing access to visitation could make Dallas County less safe,” said Craig DeRoche, President of Justice Fellowship in a statement to Breitbart Texas. “There is no such thing as ‘charging prisoners’ as a practical matter. The cost will really be paid by family, friends, clergy and other guests who are trying to help the prisoner turn from a life of crime. It is therefore simply a tax. A tax that makes Dallas County employee’s jobs easier but makes the community less safe.”
County Judge Jenkins agreed with the opposition and attempted to persuade County Commissioners to stop the deal. Jenkins said he was worried that the Sheriff’s Department would, at a later date, unilaterally decide to make the video visitations mandatory and end in-person visits. Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez said she has no such plans.
“My sense is that video visitation is a positive if it is in addition to the ability to visit in person at reasonable times,” said Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in response to an inquire from Breitbart Texas. Levin also serves as Right on Crime’s Policy Director.
Jenkins expressed opposition to the County sharing in the revenues of both the phone calls and the video visitation program. He was overruled by the vote of the commissioners.
“This is not being done to make the public safer but for the convenience of the jailers,” said Patrick J. Nolan, Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Project at the American Conservative Union Foundation in a statement to Breitbart Texas. “The priority should be on what makes better families and therefore increases the likelihood of the inmate being a good neighbor, not making life easier on the jailers. The idea that the inmates would then be charged for the visits makes it doubly bad.”
During one of the longest debates on any issue this year, embattled County Commissioner John Wiley Price said Judge Jenkins was using “misinformation” in his fight against the contract.
Referring to Judge Jenkins argument that the optional provision might be temporary, Commissioner Theresa Daniel expressed her frustration by saying, “Everyone at this table has made a commitment to ensure the fact that the continuation of in-person visitation is a top priority. I take it as a little bit of an insult that you will not [trust] that commitment.”
After the vote, Jenkins expressed that he was disappointed in the decisions made by the Court but he was pleased that the in-person visitations would continue. “This is not as bad as it could be,” he said. “Had the community not stepped in and held the elected officials accountable, it could have been worse.”
The system is expected to be operational early next year.
Other county jails across the country have implemented the video visitation system offered by Securus. In Shawnee County, Topeka, Kansas, the video visitation program is mandatory according to an article by Aly Van Dyke on the Topeka Capital-Journal. Jail officials tout the benefits to families, inmates and jailers that come from expanded visitation hours, 24-hour guaranteed advance scheduling and the ease of access from any computer with video and audio capabilities including computers provided for public use.
Others warn about the consequences of using the video system. While the video system warns people on both ends that the video conversation will be recorded and can be used against them, often times friends and family do not heed the warning or forget about the recording. That can have serious legal consequences for people on both ends of the conversation.
Shawnee County Commissioner Kevin Cook, who is also a defense lawyer, said this can be a real headache. He said defendants’ faces have gone pale when he has played back tapes of their conversations and explained the legal impact of what happened on tape. He said the legal problems can extend to the person on the other end of the conversation as well. He explained that law enforcement can track the IP address of the computer the other party is using and determine the physical address where the computer is located. If there is illegal activity going on in the background or the person is wanted by police, law enforcement officials will know where to find you and have video evidence to back it up.
“This is a defense attorney’s nightmare,” Cook said. “You’re inviting law enforcement into your home.”
Sarah Rumpf contributed to this article. Follow her on Twitter @rumpfshaker.
Bob Price is a senior political news contributor for Breitbart Texas and a member of the original Breitbart Texas team. Follow him on Twitter @BobPriceBBTX.