Dallas County pushes to end in-person jail visitations

MIKE McGEE | 9/17/2014, 11:56 p.m.
The Dallas County Commissioners Court is currently looking into a plan that would bring video visitation into the county jail ...
The Dallas County Commissioners Court voted in favor Sept. 9 to reject the proposed contract to replace traditional jail visitations with video visitations. Mike McGee

The Dallas Examiner

The Dallas County Commissioners Court is currently looking into a plan that would bring video visitation into the county jail system contracted though Dallas-based Securus Technologies. At their Sept. 9 meeting the court heard a multitude of comments from the public, all of which were against the current plan.

The contract as it is currently written would eliminate traditional in-person jail visitations with inmates. The new plan would allow Securus to install video visitation kiosks in the jail to provide 20 minute electronic visits paid for by the visitors at an estimated cost of $10. Visitors could either go to the jail for the service or use a home computer for an online video visitation.

“I want everyone to know that I am opposed to this contract,” stated Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia of District 4, whose area includes Cockrell Hill and a large portion of Oak Cliff. “I think video visitation should be offered in addition to, not instead of, face-to-face visitation.”

She further commented that she was interested in restarting the contract bidding process from the beginning. It was brought up in the meeting that the intent behind the measure is to both save money for the county and increase the safety of corrections officers who must currently move jail inmates from pods or cells into a visitation area. A video system would be similar to the telephones that inmates already have access to. Securus presently provides a similar service to Travis County.

Much of the public opposition to the plan came from the perspective that it would create emotional difficulty for inmates and their families. Throughout the comment period, commissioners were reminded that most people in the jail were not convicted of anything but rather were awaiting trial there, unable to afford bail.

“These people need to talk to their families, they need to be close to them, they need to have that connection,” Erica Cole said. “I guess, after being on grand juries so much, I realize they’re captives of ours.”

She personalized the situation, confessing, “I can’t imagine being away from my kids and my husband and my friends and my family and incarcerated for a month, or two months, or even longer.”

Josh Gravens of Texas Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants was also opposed to the contract. He pointed out that implementing the current plan would be financially costly to the friends and families of inmates.

“The Commissioner’s Court put out, and I would say that the Purchasing Department – so the Procurement Department put out – an RPF, a request for purchase, with parameters that shopped essentially for the highest rates,” Gravens stated, adding that the contract involves both a video visitation system and updating the jail phone system. “I mean, there’s a lot of upfront cost involved.”

The county estimated the baseline cost for the project to be $5 million.

Gravens claimed that he wasn’t exactly sure where the plan came from, but he was certain County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, District 2, was behind it and that the county wanted the job done without having to pay for it. Cantrell did not respond to a request for a statement in time to meet the press deadline.