The Bexar County’s Video Visitation project, presented as a way for the county to save money, will cost $685,926 more than expected each year for personnel according to the Sheriff’s Office. The extra cost sparked a heated discussion between Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau and Precinct 2 Commissioner Paul Elizondo on Tuesday.
Pamerleau explained that the additional costs were needed pay for new technology and staff at the County’s new Adult Detention Center annex at 222 S. Comal. Elizondo was startled by the increased price tag of the project because the whole point of the project, he said, was to decrease the need for County staff and costs.
Another point, Pamerleau said, was officer safety.
“On an annual basis, (there are) over 627,000 times where we need to move an inmate” for visits with family, attorney, jail programs and court transports, Pamerleau told the commissioners. This impacts the inmates but it also affects officers, who are most vulnerable to attacks after inmate visits.
Video visitation will improve overall officer safety, she said, while reducing the opportunity for attack on officers during the inmates’ movement. However, the new system will require an additional 12 staff members to operate smoothly; two video visitation supervisors and 10 security monitors. The County originally approved changes to the center as well as the $4 million video visitation project when they were presented as part of a capital project (by the previous sheriff’s administration) in 2011-12 budget.
“When this was first presented to Commissioner’s Court, it was approved with a view that it would save manpower,” Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau told the Court on Tuesday. “That was an incorrect assumption.”
Commissioner Elizondo agreed that officer safety was important, but “the problem is that that doesn’t have anything to do with visitation.”
“I don’t like playing ‘gotcha,’ and this to me smacks of that,” Elizondo said, adding that requested personnel numbers had not yet been authorized by the court. “But if we want to open the program soon, we have to add the personnel. Every time we add an officer or program we add it for life.”
Pamerleau and Elizondo argued over what costs and benefits, if any, would come from the program – before Judge Nelson Wolff intervened to remind the Court they were there to improve the County’s safety and efficiency.
“I’m a proponent of technology bringing efficiency into government, which is why we supported the project in the first place,” Judge Wolff stated after the court adjourned.
Wolff asked Pamerleau and County staff to reevaluate the final project budget before any additional County funds were released. The Sheriff’s Office is expected to return and speak with the Court once they have reevaluated and found “potential cost savings.”
The new technology and waiting area, which is being utilized by jails throughout the country, allows for shorter wait times and private conversations with inmates without having to travel to the jail campus. Critics of the program have said that limiting a prisoner’s face-to-face communication is inhumane.
To download the most recent Video Visitation presentation from the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, click here.
Pamerleau said that the jail will also be increasing its visiting hours – from 40 to 72 hours – which will require two personnel shifts during the week. Those hours will meet the two, 20 minute weekly visits required by The Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The new video visitations will allow individuals who are in medical or special management units an opportunity to visit with family.
These inmates are often denied visitation because their behavior is viewed as “not appropriate” for movement from one floor to another for visitation, Pamerleau said. But video visitation will allow them to visit with others, and improve the facility’s overall safety.
*Top Image: Sheriff Susan Pamerleau maintains that Video Visitation is an effective way to better protect officers. Photo by Lea Thompson
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