The price of communication when loved ones are behind bars

Mike McGee | 10/3/2014, 6:04 p.m. | Updated on 10/3/2014, 6:04 p.m.
“It’s a money grab,” John Thomas admonished the Dallas County Commissioners Court about the cost of jail video visitation during ...
County Judge Clay Jenkins attempted to discuss proposed charges toward families for a future video visitation of Dallas County inmates during a Dallas County Commissioners Court meeting, Sept. 16. As advised by legal council, Jenkins waited until the Sept. 23 meeting to address the issue. Mike McGee

The Dallas Examiner

“It’s a money grab,” John Thomas admonished the Dallas County Commissioners Court about the cost of jail video visitation during the Sept. 23 session. “Don’t do it.”

Thomas’ remarks during the public comment segment of the court session reflected the passion and potential inaccuracies that continue to surround the changes regarding county jail visitation policy and infrastructure.

It was decided at the Sept. 9 court meeting that video visitation through Dallas-based Securus Technologies would not replace traditional in-person jail visits as originally planned. Instead, the 20-minute video visitations would be offered in addition to in-person visits, either in the jail by way of viewing kiosks, or offsite on visitors’ home computers. The original cost estimate per visit was $10. The current concept eliminates a fee the county would collect from video visitation.

Another element of the contract involves updating the jail telephone system. The debate the court continues to face on the issue regards how the changes will be paid for and the cost of phone commissions.

“We’ve got a choice between public safety, and getting a little bit of money – it represents about .33 percent of our budget,” County Judge Clay Jenkins said.

He underscored that the importance of contact between those incarcerated and their family was crucial for meaningful rehabilitation. The judge argued that phone visitation fees therefore had to be as affordable as possible.

Jenkins contended that, in lieu of the commissions the county might collect, those funds should be replaced in the county’s budget by evenly applied taxpayer funds. The alternative would be unfair in his eyes.

“We could charge families of people in jail far more than it actually costs to communicate with [the inmates] and then use that extra money, by way of commissions, to balance other budget holes,” Jenkins stated, calling that method discriminatory.

“I say discrimination because it’s a small group of people; it’s people who are disproportionally Brown or Black, and who are disproportionally the least politically able to defend themselves,” he declared. Jenkins also pointed out that the families most affected would statistically be more likely to be at or below poverty level. Jenkins said commissions currently bring in “close to $3 million” a year.

“I’m not saying the cost would be free,” he conceded about changing the commission policy. “I’m saying the families should be charged what it actually costs to recoup the costs for talking to their loved ones.”

Jenkins further stated he thought that enough changes have been made in the original Securus request for purchase contract that it should be scrapped and the bidding process start over – an idea District 4 Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia supported in the Sept. 9 meeting.

“We need to get out of the commission business,” Jenkins voiced. “We need to get out of the business where we’re on both side of the transaction.” He called it “impossible” for the county to help keep families secure while also making money from companies charging those families to communicate with their relatives.