The Bexar County Adult Detention Center. Credit: Courtesy / Bexar County

News of the Ebola outbreak was a hot topic last year. We had the first-ever cases in this country, with some people having to be quarantined. Imagine if your son or wife had a highly communicable disease that required a one-to-two-month quarantine. Wouldn’t you want to be able to visit in order to provide support and see for yourself that your loved one was all right? If so, would you prefer (A) a 20-minute face-to-face visit sitting at a window talking by phone, or (B) a 20-minute video conversation?

If you chose option A, you agree with millions of families across the country when it comes to visiting their incarcerated sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Talking to someone on a video screen is not really a visit. Sitting at a window two or three feet from someone and hearing their voice in your ear via the telephone is the next best thing to what is called a contact visit.

You are fortunate if you have never had to visit a loved one in jail or prison. You’ve been spared a great deal of worry and heartache. You’re even luckier if you’ve never been held in a jail or prison. You’ve been spared a great deal of trauma. If you’ve never had either of these experiences, you might be getting ready to move on to the next story. This doesn’t have anything to do with you, right? Wrong.

Deputy Chief Raul Banasco
Deputy Chief Raul Banasco

According to Deputy Chief Raul Banasco, Jail Administrator with the Bexar County Adult Detention Center, which has an average daily inmate population of 4,500, an estimated 65,000 people are released from the county jail every year. That is 65,000 people returning to our neighborhoods to live. They are your neighbors and they are my neighbors, and they may be a friend or family member. Whether you lean toward the progressive or conservative side of the political spectrum, most of us can agree that we need these folks to return to our community in the best shape possible. in-person family and friend contacts while incarcerated contribute to their welfare and help inmates endure their time behind bars.

Unfortunately, Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau is planning to eliminate all in-person visits at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center in 2016. She wants to institute video monitor visits only. Many San Antonians respond first with disbelief and then with indignation when they learn about this plan. More than 700 people have signed an online petition opposing it, and more have signed paper petitions.

It is interesting to note that in 2014 video visitation was used much less frequently in state prisons, where people can actually hug each other and sit together, than in county jails. And none of our state prisons have done away with in-person visits. In Texas, a person can be incarcerated in a prison that is seven hours away from home. Many people can’t make a visitation trip at such a distance with any regularity. In such circumstances, seeing a loved one’s image on a grainy screen might be better than nothing. For prisons, video makes sense, in conjunction with in-person visits. But to people who live in the same county where a loved one is incarcerated, it makes very little sense. Especially when they still have to make the trip down to the jail, as they will be required to do in Bexar County.

Photo courtesy of Bexar County.
Photo courtesy of Bexar County.

Nonprofit organizations whose sole purpose is to protect our rights have been fighting hard to maintain in-person visits in jails, where people may be incarcerated for up to two years. Around 60% of the people being held at the Bexar County jail at any given time are awaiting trial. Unlike someone in prison, they haven’t been convicted of a crime. They just don’t have the financial resources to afford bond and await trial at home, as their more well-off counterparts are able to do. The majority of the remaining 40% of people are serving time for misdemeanors ,and state jail charges like shipping alcohol without a permit, wrongly filing trademark documents, and trying to vote illegally.

Some of the national organizations that are working to retain in-person visits are the ACLU, the Osborne Association, the Vera Institute of Justice, Prison Policy Initiative, the Sentencing Project, and Grassroots Leadership. Some of the Texas organizations doing the same work are the Texas Jail Project, Texas Cure, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and the Texas Civil Rights Project. These are all nonprofit organizations. No one who does this kind of work is in it for the money.

But the proponents of video visitation are in it for the money. They include the corporations that make the equipment and provide the service. Incarcerating 2.4 million citizens a year in this country is big business. The so-called Prison-Industrial Complex is a multi-billion dollar market of goods and services paid for at taxpayer expense. Phone calls alone, for which families are charged exorbitant fees, are a billion-dollar industry. Video visitation promises to be even more lucrative for corporations and jails.

The other group that would like to eliminate in-person visits consists of jail administrators. The reason for this is not quite as obvious, but it’s really the same as the corporations: money. While jail administrators claim it is for security purposes, the bottom line is the bottom dollar. Most jails receive a commission on each video visit. Unlike in-person visits, which are free, 20-minute video visits cost as much as $20. And according to family members who have experienced video visitation, that $20 is charged whether the chat lasts 20 minutes or only 10 minutes because of technology issues.

The video provider selected for Bexar County is Inmate Calling Solutions, the same corporation that provides the jail’s telephone service. The terms of the contract have not been announced to the public, but the fact sheet that the Sheriff’s Department provided to members of the Texas Legislature states that video conversations will be “free of charge – no fees.” According to Chief Banasco, “ We bought the system. We own it.”

“Video visitation is not impersonal or dehumanizing,” Chief Banasoc said. “Our jail will be more efficiently run. We’ll be able to have more visits.”

While the jail currently has 80 simultaneous in-person visits, video visitation will accommodate 65-100 visits. There will be more visits overall because inmates will remain in their living area for their calls, so the time required to escort them to and from the visiting area will be eliminated.

One of the sales pitches the video visitation industry uses to convince jail administrators to purchase equipment, software, and services is that they will reduce contraband in the jail and increase security. Our neighbors a short distance away in Travis County proved that that is not true. They experimented with the elimination of in-person visits and are now looking at bringing them back.

In October, Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition released a report titled, “Video Visitation: How Private Companies Push for Visits by Video and Families Pay the Price.” The statistics obtained through an open-records request cover the time period from May 2012 through May 2014; in-person window visits were eliminated in May, 2013. The data show that inmate-on-inmate assaults increased 20%, contraband cases increased 54%, and inmate-on-staff assaults jumped by a tremendous 167%.

Another argument our sheriff’s department is making for ending in-person visits is that it will reduce staffing required to facilitate visitation and save the county money. This is where the bottom dollar lies with Bexar County. But this is a myopic view of a very complex matter. Both Travis and Denton Counties have been sued over video visitation related issues. Lawsuits cost taxpayers a lot of money that could be better used to improve jail operations. And then there’s the issue of recidivism, a return to jail due new offenses or parole violation.

A highly regarded study produced by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that visits to prisoners “significantly decreased the risk of recidivism.” In it are several suggestions as to how to become more “visitor friendly.” While conceding that costs would be incurred, the authors maintain that those would likely be more than offset by the resulting public safety benefits and a decrease in the number of people who return to jail.

Tom Shaer, Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “All research shows in-person visits absolutely benefit the mental health of both parties; video can’t match that.”

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reports that it costs Bexar County taxpayers $127,735 per day to house its pretrial population. If real visits from family and friends can benefit mental health and bring down costs by reducing recidivism, then our sheriff’s office should be doing everything possible to encourage those visits rather than eliminating them.

Not much research focuses solely on the impact of replacing window visits with video. Although the Vera Institute is in the middle of what it calls the first comprehensive study of the use of video, it has yet to report the results. “Survey of Jail Visitors About Visitation Policies” was published in the Prison Journal in 2009. The researchers report that among 70 visitors to a suburban jail who responded to the question, “How satisfied are you with video visitation?” 66% said that they were dissatisfied. Reasons included poor image quality and having to look up at the monitor, which is very different from being able to look directly into someone’s eyes when you are speaking with them. They said these problems and others impeded communication between them and the person they were visiting. Frozen screens and dropped calls also are a problem.

The Texas Legislature is opposed to eliminating in-person visits. This past session, lawmakers approved House Bill 549 requiring county jails to provide greater access to in-person visits. County jails must allow inmates at least two, 20-minute in-person visits a week. That is great news for people in counties where facilities for in-person visits haven’t been removed and replaced with facilities for video. But strangely enough, we’re not included in that group.

Rep. Garnet F. Coleman (D-Houston) proposed an amendment to the bill to accommodate the 12 county jails that already have ended in-person visits. They do not have to comply with the law, and neither does Bexar County. Lobbyists representing Bexar County apparently lobbied successfully to get our jail included with the ones that no longer have facilities for window visits. Even though our in-person facilities are still functioning four days out of every week, because some of the $4.5 million dollars budgeted for the video facility have already been spent, our sheriff has legislative permission to eliminate in-person visits.

Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau
Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau.

Sheriff Pamerleau is a true professional and a strong leader who has made some positive changes at the Bexar County jail during her two and a half years in office. The plans for the video facility include re-entry services for families, an area for children, and accommodation for inmates with medical issues. These are excellent ideas. What is difficult to comprehend is the sheriff’s unwillingness to offer both video and in-person visitation options to the citizens of Bexar County.

No one is opposed to video for those who want to use it. Having that option along with in-person visits would eliminate the long waits in line that the administration cites as one reason to end in-person visits. Another option that would further decrease those waits is extending visiting hours from four days a week to six or seven, and offering more visiting hours each day.

The National Institute of Corrections has published a guide to assist commissioners, sheriffs, and other decision makers with the implementation of video visitation. The following statement can be found in the first chapter:

“Traditional, in-person visiting is a best practice that should continue in all correctional settings when possible. Until more is known, implementing a hybrid model of in-person and video visiting is encouraged. In doing so, the benefits of traditional visiting are preserved and potentially strengthened with video visiting.”

It is not too late for the Bexar County Commissioners and Sheriff Susan Pamerleau to choose best practices. The people of Bexar County, in and out of jail, deserve no less.

*Featured/top image: The Bexar County Adult Detention Center. Photo courtesy of Bexar County. 

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Margarita McAuliffe

Margarita McAuliffe is the Founder & Lead Organizer of the Mothers Act for Criminal Justice Reforms.