Face-to-face visits will continue at the Dallas County Jail after county commissioners threw out a proposed contract with a videoconferencing company that would have banned them. The company, Securus Technologies, was seeking a contract to provide video visitations at the jail. Commissioners said they were still interested in the service, but not at the cost of stopping in-person visits. The ban on face-to-face visits appeared to be a way for the company, which is based in North Texas, to recoup its expenses for installing the video-visitation system. The company was going to spend around $5 million to set up the technology. It would then charge $10 for each 20-minute video chat. Dallas County would have received up to a 25 percent commission on those calls. Prohibiting in-person visits almost surely would have increased the number of video chats, which in turn would boost revenues for Securus — and for the county.
But when details of the contract were made public last week, County Judge Clay Jenkins led a last-ditch effort to reject it. Backed by inmates’ rights advocates, Jenkins said the contract made video visits too costly.
“It is a way to make money … off the backs of families,” he said.
He also said eliminating in-person visits would be inhumane. Commissioners were flooded with emails opposing the contract. At Tuesday’s meeting of the Commissioners Court, 17 people showed up to speak out against the plan. They included a man convicted of a murder for which he was later exonerated and a former state legislator, Terri Hodge, who spent time in federal prison for tax evasion. After more than two hours of discussion, the court voted to pull the item from its agenda. The staff was instructed to seek a new contract under different terms. Those new terms are to include the continuation of in-person visits and elimination of the county’s commission on video visits.
The five companies that bid on the original request from the county will be eligible to submit new proposals.
The vote was 4-1, with Jenkins the sole dissenter. He wanted to completely start over with the bidding process, opening it to any company.
Most jail inmates, he said, are awaiting trial — meaning they are legally presumed to be innocent — or have been convicted only of misdemeanors. Neither the county nor its private contractor should be looking to make money off of the inmates or their families, Jenkins said.
Though he wanted the commissioners to take broader action Tuesday, he said their vote was a step in the right direction. “I am very pleased with the court today in looking at these commissions and saying that they want to get out of the commission business,” Jenkins said.
Dallas County has been exploring video visitation for years. It’s been portrayed as an additional option for inmates’ friends and families who can’t or won’t trek downtown to the jail. But county staff acknowledged that the technology is also intended to save money. Managing visitors and moving inmates to visitation areas takes significant staff time, they said.
Commissioner Mike Cantrell said he thought the per-minute cost of the video chats was fair. He said the county spends about $107 million a year to run the jail and brings in about $10.8 million in bond forfeitures, fines and other assessments on inmates. But the commissioners were unanimous in not wanting to eliminate in-person visits. That was also the main concern of the plan’s opponents who spoke at the meeting, including several defense attorneys. Hodge, the former state legislator, urged the commissioners to consider the families of poor inmates.
“Many of these families don’t have BlackBerrys, smartphones and computer terminals in their homes to allow for video visitation,” she said. Richard Miles, who spent nearly 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, said visits from loved ones are vital to the well-being and rehabilitation of inmates. “My father died while I was in prison,” he said. “What did I hold on to? My visits.”
By MATTHEW WATKINS The Dallas Morning News