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Video chatting to be available to Travis County jail inmates www.privateofficer.com
Travis County TX Nov 1 2012 Travis County jail inmates will be among the first in the state allowed to video chat with friends, family and lawyers in a for-profit venture that will earn the county a portion of the proceeds.
The system, approved unanimously by county commissioners Tuesday, would work like Skype video chatting, but with the same restrictions as in-person jail visits. A corrections officer would be in the room and calls would be recorded, unless it is a call with the inmate’s attorney.
Calls to lawyers will be free, but personal conversations will cost $20 for 20 minutes as part of the county’s deal with Securus Technologies Inc., a company that installs phones and video conferencing technology in lockups. Officials said they anticipate starting the calls in four to six months and have all the features in place one year from now at the downtown and Del Valle jails.
The county won’t pay for the system, which a county official estimated would cost $750,000. The county’s general fund will get $4.60 of each $20 call; the company will get the rest.
It’s too early to tell if the video calls will lead to an increase in jail staffing, but they will likely be happening in existing meeting spaces, sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade said.
The jails, which had 2,251 inmates on Tuesday, typically have about 500 personal visits per day, Wade said.
Personal calls will be monitored just as in-person visits are, he said. “It’s not like we have someone listening to every call all the time, but they can’t do anything that’s blatant, like video sex,” Wade said.
Wade also said officials expect that “the vast majority of the calls will be official visits with attorneys, and those aren’t monitored.”
Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and El Paso County officials said they don’t have outside video visitations or plans to add them. A Harris County’s sheriff’s department spokesman said its jail inmates temporarily housed in Louisiana because of overcrowding were allowed to video conference with attorneys, but both out-of-county housing and the video conferencing have stopped. State prisons don’t use video conferencing, but a Securus representative said institutions in other states do.
Susan Fenner, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, favored TravisCounty’s remote video conferencing in an interview Tuesday.
“I’ve talked to people who, maybe their grandmother lives in Washington state, and there’s not any way she’s going to come down to Texas to see her grandson,” she said.
The county’s jails will still maintain regular in-person visiting hours, which are free, said Maj. Darren Long, the county jail administrator.
Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said in Tuesday’s meeting that she has “a little pause about generating revenue from the inmates. … The vast majority of inmates are not well-heeled.” Judge Sam Biscoe said the court might consider lowering the cost to inmates within the next year, before the system is installed, and should look at what other jail systems charge.
Fenner echoed concerns about the costs but also noted that $20 can be a lot less than gas and time to travel for a visit.
“The No. 1 reason to (give them free phone calls) is to facilitate communication between inmates and their lawyers in the free world,” Biscoe said.