Long lines form in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center on Saturdays. Courtesy photo.

Editor’s note: The following article was written by Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau in response to Margarita McAuliffe’s “Bexar County Jailers Replacing In-Person Visits with Video” published on June 15. 

According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, a public policy “fact tank,” as of April 2015, nearly two-thirds of all Americans own a smart phone. The majority of us enjoy the ability to communicate with others in all sorts of ways, thanks to technology – using tools like social media, FaceTime and Skype.

Technological advances bring ease and convenience to us commercially and socially – but also, these advances are having an impact on the criminal justice system. One example of this is the introduction of body cameras to law enforcement agencies. This tool brings with it a greater measure of accountability to people on both sides of the camera.

Another example is video visitation. As Kevin Wright, an assistant professor of criminology at Arizona State University writes in a recent article in Slate, “Video visitation is taking place in more than 500 jails and prisons across 43 states and the District of Columbia.” Wright believes video visitation could not only reduce costs to local governments, it has the potential to reduce recidivism. He continues, “Video visitation could find ways to provide visits for the unvisited, which can help them be productive when they return to society.”

Far from being an untested, untried methodology in corrections, video visitation has been standard practice in jails and prisons across the country for 20 years now, after first being introduced in the state of Florida in 1995.

Video visitation rendering. Courtesy image.
Video visitation rendering. Courtesy image.

During the 84th Texas Legislature, there was much debate over video visitation. Rep. Eric Johnson introduced legislation that required a minimum of two 20-minute, in-person, non-contact visitation periods per week. This bill is an example of well-intentioned lawmakers, attempting to do good as public servants – but discovering their actions had unintended consequences. HB 549 passed, and the result will be an increased financial burden to cash-strapped localities all across Texas, as jail staffing needs increase. Without technology improvements, increased visits drive increases in staffing. 

Fortunately, however, the bill passed with an amendment exempting counties, where significant costs have been incurred for jails to introduce video visitation. The Bexar County Jail is one such facility, as County Commissioners have already approved more than $4.5 million to implement video visitation by early next year.

So why is video visitation getting a bad rap as efforts are underway to expand its use in Texas, and more specifically, Bexar County?

I think there are a number of reasons for this. For starters, there are some misconceptions and inaccuracies on this topic that need to be addressed.

Take, for example, Margarita McAuliffe’s recent piece in the Rivard Report, Bexar County Jailers Replacing In-Person Visits with Video.” Ms. McAuliffe, founder of the Mothers Act for Criminal Justice Reforms, asserts more than 700 people have signed a Change.org online petition opposing video visitation. What she fails to tell readers, however, is less than half of the signers were from Texas, and fewer still were from the San Antonio area. Most of the signers were from out of state, and even out of the country.

Another issue with the article was its continual reference to prisons. Often, people don’t understand the difference between prisons and jails. Jails, like the Bexar County Adult Detention Center, are transitional facilities. The average length of stay in the Bexar County Jail is 42 days. Most individuals incarcerated here – 60% – are awaiting trial, or serving misdemeanor sentences of less than a year. Prisons, on the other hand, are for convicted criminals who are serving anywhere from one year to life imprisonment. Most opponents of video visitation are responding to concerns related to the prison environment.

An inmate uses a telephone to speak with a visitor. Courtesy image.
An inmate uses a telephone to speak with a visitor. Courtesy image.

One common complaint about video visitation is that contractors are exploiting incarcerated people and their loved ones by charging exorbitant fees. Opponents of video visitation in Bexar County fail to mention to the public that we won’t be charging any fees when we bring it here. Nor will we be recording inmate-attorney visits, which are protected by law because of privacy and civil rights concerns.

So what are the benefits to bringing video visitation to Bexar County?

It will increase visitation opportunities by 250% – making visits available seven days a week, 10 hours a day. Presently, visits are only allowed five days a week (Saturday through Wednesday), and an inmate’s loved ones are, in some cases, waiting six to eight hours for a 20-minute visit. That’s not a contact visit. It’s a visit using a telephone, with a thick wall of plastic between the inmate and his or her visitor. For many who come to our jail to visit their loved ones, public transportation is their only way of getting here. When the last bus leaves, they have to be on it. The other night, visitors were still in our lobby waiting to see their incarcerated family members at 2 a.m. Those were the lucky ones – who didn’t have to catch a bus to get home.

Visitors wait in the lobby at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center. Courtesy image.
Visitors wait in the lobby at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center. Courtesy image.

Let’s talk about children. Presently, there is no appropriate waiting area at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center for visitors accompanied by children. It can be a traumatic experience for children to come here, wait for an inordinate amount of time for the visit, sometimes having to be outside in the elements, when the lines go out the door.

The new, family-friendly facility being renovated in Bexar County will be off-site, a few blocks away. It will provide re-entry services for families, a children’s area equipped with books and activities, and easier parking availability. It will also have kiosks so families can make online appointments for future visits with ease. And thanks to new mobile visitation units, those housed in our medical, mental health and protective custody areas will finally be able to visit with their families. Presently, they have no such opportunities.

Bringing video visitation to Bexar County has an added benefit, of decreasing criminal activity and contraband coming into the jail. Brevard County, Florida realized a 98% reduction in contraband with the introduction of video visitation. From an officer safety perspective, having video visitation capability inside living units enhances safety and security for both officers and inmates. It will decrease security risks involved in moving inmates from living units to visitation booths, since the most vulnerable time for assaults is at the end of visitation, when the inmate is escorted back to a living unit. Although it can serve to reduce staffing required to facilitate visitation, more important is being able to redirect staffing to higher-priority requirements, thus saving taxpayer dollars.

Visitors wait in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center lobby for a visitation. Courtesy photo.
Visitors wait in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center lobby for a visitation. Courtesy photo.

When video visitation is a reality in Bexar County, some in-person visits will be available for special circumstances.  And the existing in-person, contact visits associated with the MATCH and PATCH programs (Mothers And Their Children and Papas And Their Children) will continue.

*Featured/top image: Visitors wait in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center on Saturday. Courtesy photo. 

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Susan Pamerleau is the Bexar County Sheriff.