News Roundup: Jail, Traffic, & Politics

Video visitation under fire, again; traffic experiments

Gregory Fenves
Gregory Fenves

In this week's News Roundup, Denton County's policy of video visitation for jails gets criticized; Council tries to fix traffic; UT names presidential finalist; and more.

Securus Technologies, the Dallas company that since 2009 has outfitted Travis County Correctional Complex (and inmate facilities in 12 other Texas counties) with video-conferencing technology used in place of face-to-face visitations, has found itself under even further scrutiny. On Wednesday, Denton firm Bodkin, Niehaus & Dickson filed a class action lawsuit against the company alleging that its mandate that Denton County correctional facilities only use the video-conferencing platform creates a monopoly and thus violates state and federal law.

The lawsuit goes on to explain how Denton County’s decision to terminate face-to-face visitation and employ only one provider will result in additional (and unethical) costs and expenses for those wishing to meet with their friends and loved ones behind bars. “The use of anti-competitive contractual tactics by Securus, in an attempt to profit off the backs of inmates and their families, many of whom are indigent and have yet to be convicted of any criminal activity, is unconscionable and cannot be tolerated,” said J. Edward Niehaus, who’s serving as lead counsel.

This is the second lawsuit to be filed against Securus in the past 12 months. Last April, Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Brian McGivern filed a suit alleging that the company and TCCC were illegally using the video-conferencing technology to record conversations between inmates and their attorneys. In February, McGivern said that he doesn’t expect the case to go to trial until next year.

Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition released a damning study in November concerning Securus’ relationship with TCCC that noted how disciplinary infractions at the Del Valle complex climbed from 828 in May 2012 to 1,150 in April 2014 and inmate-on-inmate assaults rose 20% over that two-year period. – Chase Hoffberger

No Boxing Out: At an early Friday morning press conference – possibly to avoid rush-hour traffic – City Manager Marc Ott, Mayor Steve Adler, and District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen (chair of Council’s Mobility Committee) announced a new “comprehensive traffic management plan” that will attempt to identify short-term, mid-term, and long-range solutions to Austin’s myriad traffic congestion problems. Emphasizing a trial-and-error approach – “Let’s just try it,” said the mayor – the officials mentioned several short-term initiatives that will begin as pilots and, as deemed successful, begin to spread citywide.

The overall emphasis, according to the city’s “Traffic Congestion Action Plan” (or “T-CAP”), is to improve traffic flow overall by focusing on particular solutions where congestion starts: e.g., rush-hour intersections, left-turn lanes, traffic signals, etc. An initial effort, to be rolled out early in April, will be a “Don’t Block the Box” initiative, emphasizing keeping intersections clear during rush hours. Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar said that similar initiatives in New York City and Seattle had been successful; Assistant Chief of Police Chris McIlvain said additional enforcement will come from APD’s existing highway enforcement division, “fine-tuning” to the intersections where they’re most needed.

Other initiatives to be addressed in the overall plan include: better APD integration into the city’s traffic management center; completing the still in development Advanced Traffic Management System; better enforcement against lane-blocking and rush-hour deliveries Downtown; 20% reduction of city employee traffic during peak hours (and challenging businesses and other jurisdictions to join the effort); improving intersection geometry at 180 targeted intersections; engaging in a new long-term Strategic Mobility Plan. More details on the plan are available here.

”We intend to keep this energy alive,” said Ott, adding, “experimentation should not be a foreign word in Austin.” – Michael King

It Ain't Unanimous: In a 5-3 vote on Friday, March 27, the University of Texas System Board of Regents selected University Provost Gregory Fenves as the "sole finalist" to succeed UT-Austin President Bill Powers, who is stepping down in June. The vote was unusual in that regents generally unite on an administrative choice, once the decision has been made. But the three dissenting regents – Wallace Hall, Brenda Pejovich, and Alex Cranberg – have fought with the Powers administration over admissions and other matters, and Fenves is considered a member of the Powers administration. Fenves is a structural engineer who was previously dean of the School of Engineering; he arrived in 2007 from UC-Berkeley, where he was chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. – M.K.

A Bald Move: Hopes for those eager to see U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert’s inevitably embarrassing rise and fall as a presidential contender quickly extinguished this week. Gohmert – known for his virulent anti-LGBT and right-wing remarks – had told the The Hill his good friend Ted Cruz would be an “outstanding president” he himself had not, “ruled out an exploratory committee” sending politicos to speculate a possible Gohmert presidential campaign. But apparently, it was all a joke. An e-mail from Gohmert’s office clarified that the Texas congressman was speaking tongue-in-cheek and that Gohmert’s baldness prevents him from ever making a bid, reported the Texas Tribune. “To more completely describe his actual beliefs, Congressman Gohmert notes the Kennedy-Nixon debates created a line of demarcation beyond which television became the critical factor in being elected President which also meant there would be no more bald Presidents in his lifetime.” And then political satirists all over America shed a tear at the missed opportunity for mockery… – Mary Tuma

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Securus, City Council, University of Texas, Louie Gohmert

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