In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it was taking action to make long-distance prison phone calls much more affordable. Instead of $17 for a 15-minute call, the new cost would be no more than $4. The reform was a long overdue response to a petition that had been filed 10 years earlier by an elderly grandmother, Martha Wright, who fought for fair phone rates so she wouldn’t have to choose between buying her medicine and calling her grandson in prison. In the wake of FCC crackdowns, the industry, which generates $1.2 billion a year, went looking for a new revenue stream.
Prison phone service companies like Dallas-based Securus Technologies, Inc. have found a new way to profit from their captive audience: video visitation systems. In the last two years, at least 25 county jails in Texas have installed video terminals that allow inmates to chat with friends, family and others on the outside. Like the phone systems, the cost of using the service is steep: up to $1 per minute for a Skype-like chat, not including usage fees and taxes. But the real kicker is that in many cases the video systems are replacing in-person visits.
That trend is concerning to some lawmakers who are trying to pass legislation this session that would preserve in-person visits at county jails. A bill by Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) to do just that overwhelmingly passed in the House Monday, but only after an amendment was added that leaves a significant portion of the jail population out. The Senate is likely to hear the bill next week, and Johnson thinks that it has a good chance of passing there, too.
Since adopting the video technology, at least 14 counties in Texas have eliminated the ability of inmates to meet face-to-face with family and loved ones—a move that activists have called unconscionable. Some Securus contracts require jails to eliminate in-person visits. Until last week, that was a standard stipulation in Securus’ contracts. Other lock-ups, like the Travis County Jail, have independently decided to offer video visits only.
That means visitors have two options: travel to the jail to use the terminals—which have been described as low-quality, with glitches and lag time—for free, or pay the steep fees to chat remotely. Either way, visitors and inmates report having trouble maintaining eye contact with each other, since the systems have cameras that are set higher than the screen. Video chats are no replacement, they say, for human contact that can benefit both inmates and their families.
“New technology could be used in a really wonderful way that would enhance people’s abilities to see loved ones who are locked up,” says Quong Charles, who is the criminal justice programs director for the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership.
But she says the system doesn’t work well, and that seeing someone through a screen is a “disembodied experience.”
“In the free world we wouldn’t pay for this service,” she said.
Grassroots Leadership has been trying to get in-person visitations restored at the Travis County Jail for almost two years. The group was alerted to the situation there after the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit against Securus and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly unlawfully recording the video chats. Another lawsuit was filed in March on behalf of Derrick Matthew Rice, a 29-year-old inmate at the Denton County Jail, against Securus, the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The suit claims that eliminating in-person visits is a violation of what’s already stipulated in jail standards.
Johnson’s bill won’t eliminate video visitation, but instead ensures that most county jails still offer in-person visits as an option. In a committee hearing in April, Johnson noted that more than half of county jail inmates haven’t been convicted of any crime. Most are in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay their bond. And with video-visitation systems, families who could be using money to pay to get their loved one out of jail end up spending money that money just to see him or her on a screen.
“Their family members aren’t guilty of anything,” Johnson said. “Unless you consider being poor a crime.”
But during Monday’s floor debate on HB 549, some lawmakers seemed more concerned with whether the bill would place an unacceptable financial burden on counties. Rep. John Frullo (R-Lubbock) said Lubbock County just spent $80 million dollars on a new jail, and that it would cost $8 million to adjust the facility to comply with the bill. He and 131 other legislators voted to add an amendment to the bill that essentially excludes those 14 counties that have already instituted video-only visitations.
Legislators supporting the amendment argued that some jails have been retrofitted for the video systems, or recently built without the facilities necessary for in-person visitations. Altering those facilities to comply with the in-person visit requirement would be too costly, they claim.
Quong Charles says it’s good that the bill would prohibit more than 200 Texas counties from eliminating in-person visitations in the future. But because many of the grandfathered jails are some of the biggest in the state, the current version of the legislation, she says, is “unfortunately not going to protect a large number of people.”
Those counties could choose to bring back in-person visitations, but they have little financial incentive to do so. Jails receive a commission from companies like Securus for every video call, and can save money in staffing costs by eliminating the need for visitation receptionists.
Mary King, jail programs and project coordinator for Bastrop County, spoke to the Observer last fall as that county’s jail was getting ready to eliminate in-person visits. She said Bastrop County has a powerful incentive to limit visits to the jail altogether.
“To be honest, yes, you really want to reduce the number of on-site visits because of the amount of staff time it’s still going to take,” she said.
More important, Bastrop County doesn’t a get commission for video chats made on-site. Furthermore, Bastrop County’s contract with Securus stipulates that the company will pay the jail a 20 percent commission only for months during which 534 or more remote calls have been made. If the facility fails to meet that quota, they don’t get paid at all.
She agreed with those who say that face-to-face visits are better than video conferencing.
“I’m not sure if I had a family member here and I lived here, that I’d like it either,” King said.
But she sees the other side of it, too: “Honestly, the jail is no different from any other business. The county is just a business.”