“It was all in one night, and all under the influence of crack.”
That’s how Doug Smith, a policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, explained how, seven years ago, he wound up going to jail and, eventually, prison.
It was early November 2008 when Smith robbed two convenience stores and a hotel in Austin while on probation for an earlier robbery. That landed him a four-month stint in the Travis County Correctional Complex before he was moved to state prison.
Smith remembers the day he says his mom finally “mustered up the courage” to visit her son in jail, because it didn’t feel like much of a visit at all.
“She waited in line for hours only to be placed in front of a video screen, where she couldn’t even look me eye-to-eye,” Smith said. The camera was placed just above the screen, so Smith and his mom could only see the tops of each other’s heads.
During those months in jail, Smith had begun to recover from his crack addiction and gotten involved with some of the rehabilitation services Travis County offered: meditation, Alcoholics Anonymous and religion.
But on video, Smith’s mom couldn’t see the changes in her son’s face.
“There were certain things that were happening at that time that she needed to see,” he said. “That she deserved to see, that could only be seen face-to-face.”
But video visitations — as opposed to in-person interactions with loved ones — are becoming more and more common as technology companies provide low- or even no-cost software and hardware to Texas jails, knowing that they can charge incarcerated people and their families a premium — as much as $20 for a remote 20-minute call — to use their services. Jails can get as much as a 25 percent cut of the revenue. Families of incarcerated people can still physically visit one of Travis County’s jails and see their loved one via video for free; the fees are incurred for remote video visitations.
The rates for video visitation and “inmate calling services” — audio connections for which these companies also charge steep fees — have risen so sharply that, just this week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to cap how much inmates are charged by companies like Global-Tel and Securus Technologies.
Lawmakers in Texas have also taken notice. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a new law that requires county jails to provide incarcerated people with a minimum of two 20-minute in-person visits per week. The law went into effect on September 1 but it allows counties to apply to opt out if they’ve “incurred significant design, engineering or construction costs” that would prevent them from compliance. Nearly two dozen of Texas’ 254 counties applied for an exemption. One of them was Travis County. In May 2013, the county ended in-person visitation, with help from Securus, which provided the video service at “no cost to the county” but at significant personal and financial cost to inmates and their families. Members of the Travis County Commissioners Court, which controls the county budget, have said that at the time, they were led to believe that video visitation would be a supplement to, not a replacement for, in-person visitations.
Securus pushes its “remote visitation” option as a money-saving initiative that saves public dollars on jail staff and “minimizes the dangerous and costly movement of inmates within a facility,” and advertises its video software as technology that “minimizes contraband.”
However, researchers with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit that focuses on prison reform, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that disciplinary cases for possession of contraband at the Travis County Correctional Complex increased, along with assaults and other disciplinary infractions increased after video-only visitation became the default policy in Travis County.
In September, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards granted Travis County an exemption from the new state jail visitation law. However, the commission was reevaluating its decision to grant the exemption just as the Travis County commissioners were retooling the county budget and looking for a way to bring back in-person visits, in part due to the efforts of criminal justice reform advocates like Doug Smith.
Out of prison and back in the workforce, Smith now says in-person visits would have made a difference for his family when he was incarcerated.
“There was a lot of reason to hope,” Smith said, once he got clean in jail. But his mom literally couldn’t see it. He remembers how the fog of the drugs went away, how he could show emotion through his face and how his eyes were clear again.
A few weeks after that visit, his mother — a regular hiker and health nut — had a heart attack. “The stress and anguish she was going through. Losing her son … to prison, that was just too much,” he told the Observer.
“You can’t see those little nuances on a computer screen,” he said. “If she had been able to see that it would have been much easier on her.”
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who presides over the Commissioners Court, has been a vocal proponent of reinstating in-person visitation.
“The idea of having to talk to your loved one through a television screen … knowing that you might not see them again for a long time just doesn’t sit right as a human being,” she said.
With that sentiment in mind, Eckhardt and the commissioners made their first attempt to bring it back at the September 9 budget mark-up session, when the sheriff’s department proposed that the budget reserve $964,000 to restore in-person jail visits. Eckhardt said that proposal didn’t sit well with commissioners who felt they’d be “rewarding the sheriff’s department for having ended in-person visitation.”
“I was the only one who voted in favor for it, mostly because I wanted to keep the idea alive. Once something fails unanimously it’s difficult to bring it back,” Eckhardt said.
So Eckhardt went to the county’s Planning and Budget Office to find a solution: $657,000 in the department’s overtime reserve would be used reinstate in-person jail visits.
The sheriff’s office has said it can have in-person visitation — facilitated by 14 full-time new-hires — up and running by April.
“We’ll try to get it up faster than that,” Eckhardt said.
As Travis County moves toward seeing the return of face-to-face visits, the issue of jail visitation practices is like to garner more attention statewide. This month, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made jail visitation part of his interim charges, asking the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to review jail visitation practices, including communication costs for family members of incarcerated people and ways to “promote familial contact and relationships.”
Doug Smith said that he hopes the interim charge “will keep the discussion alive, and hopefully lead to a statewide policy requiring in-person visitation in all county jails.”