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

During the meeting, commissioners took a recess with their legal counsel to discuss possible alterations of the plan. Speaking after the meeting, Garcia reiterated the importance of jail safety as a foundation of the plan but also confirmed that cost benefits to the county was a factor.

The commissioner proposed that the plan needed some changes, however.

“It’s not a tool that I can see here making profit, especially if it’s for people to see their loved ones who are incarcerated,” Garcia said.

Gravens, who also supports video as a supplement to traditional visitation rather than a replacement, concurred.

“What they were willing to do was to allow a big company to come in and recoup its costs on the backs of the families that have loved ones in Lew Sterrett.”

He surmised that the plan was a money grab for a private company.

“I find it ironic in Lew Sterrett that you’re actually able to take your wallet with you,” Gravens voiced. “And the reason is, it’s because they want you to spend your money while you’re there.”

One former inmate who wished to remain anonymous clarified jail protocol. “You do get to keep your money, except it’s exchanged for chits you can spend on toiletries and such.”

Garcia said during the recess it was unanimously determined video visitation should be used in addition to face-to-face visitation. She added that the court decided “to do a best and final offer” that would bring all of the bidders back into the process.

“Our staff will be looking, with the other bidders, to see how they can amend the number of kiosks to contract – of the video visitation as well as face-to-face visitation – and some of the concerns that were mentioned today during the discussion.”

The contract with Securus has only recently been made available to the public but the concept of the plan has been explored and negotiated for the past six months, it was divulged at the meeting. Sheriff Lupe Valdez told commissioners that the length of time it has taken to roll out the plan has created a situation that prevents her from taking any decisive action at the jail. After the meeting, the sheriff acknowledged she was bound by whatever decision the court made.

“It doesn’t matter what I think. Whatever they decide I’m going to have to follow,” she said, frustration in her voice. “Oftentimes you don’t even think about it, but you put something into action and it requires other things to happen, and we don’t have the people or the time for that requirement.”

This can result in having to pay overtime or bring in more staff to get things done, Valdez said.

The issue was taken up again at the Commissioner’s Court meeting on Sept. 16. The Dallas Examiner will have a follow-up report on the latest decisions discussed at that meeting.