Will in-person visitation return to Travis County Jail?

Sarah Eckhardt (Photo by John Anderson)

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt meets today, Thursday, Sept. 24, with Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) Executive Director Brandon Wood and representatives from the Travis County Sheriff's Office to discuss whether or not the commission appropriately granted Travis County a grandfather exemption to HB 549, the law mandating that county jails afford inmates two 20-minute in-person visits each week that they're in custody.

The new law went into effect Sept. 1, however 22 counties (with a 23rd undergoing further examination) were granted waivers, because TCJS determined that their jails had "incurred significant design, engineering, or construction costs" to provide inmates with video conferencing technology through Securus Technologies (see "Through a Glass, Darkly," Nov. 7, 2014). Locally, 2009's installation in the Travis County Cor­rectional Complex's largest unit – Building 12, which houses roughly 1,300 inmates – and the May 2013 expansion across the remaining housing units – convinced TCJS to issue Travis County such an exception.

However, questions concerning who paid for Del Valle's Securus booths has the state commission reconsidering that exemption. A review of an Oct. 13, 2012, Commissioners Court hearing finds county Infor­ma­tion Tech­nology Director Walter LaGrone telling commissioners that Travis County incurred "zero" costs for the 2013 expansion. "Securus is building that technology," LaGrone added. "That's how they're getting compensated by 20 dollars for up to 20 minutes" of inmate conversation – paid for by families and loved ones.

Travis County Jail Admini­strator Darren Long said during that same 2012 conversation that video visitation would be "just another option for those that are incarcerated in our facilities" and that "you can still get" in-person visits by traveling to the facility. But that all changed a few months later when the actual expansion rolled out and inmates were no longer afforded in-person visitations. Today, even visitors who travel to Del Valle have to communicate through video conferencing. The change in policy is something that even a few county commissioners didn't realize.

Inmate visitations at TCCC are held through video-enabled computers.

That much became evident during a Sept. 9 budget mark-up meeting in which county commissioners tried to figure out whether or not they wanted to authorize more than $1 million in spending for something they weren't required by law to do. The exemption means that any efforts to reconfigure TCCC's visitation policies would have to be voluntary on the commissioners' behalf. Commissioners considered two options – a comprehensive $1.2 million package that would bring in-person visits to everyone at Del Valle, and another for those in minimum- and medium-security setups costing about $300,000 less. The Sheriff's Office recommended the comprehensive package, which the commissioners ultimately rejected on a 4-1 vote (with Eckhardt, a vocal opponent of video visitation, voting to support the reimplementation of in-person visits).

"Most of us were surprised that we didn't have the option [for in-person visits in our jails]," offered Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. "I probably wouldn't have been this moved had I known that it was going to cost us over 1 million dollars. Maybe I could be convinced to try to do something in the middle. Who gets to see somebody? Isn't it true that a high percentage of those incarcerated are there for less than 30 days? I could be moved to, you know – 'You got in trouble. You're only going to be here for 30 days. You're not going to see somebody for 30 days' – if I'm going to spend what I consider to be a large sum of money." Other commissioners agreed with their Pct. 3 colleague that they'd rather see an amended partial roll-out option than spend so much money for a full re-implementation.

Turns out, however, that they may not have the option. On Tuesday, Eckhardt informed the court of today's meeting with the TCJS and sheriff's department. There, she indicated that the funding stream used for Securus' TCCC implementation was "significantly different" from those explained to the TCJS by other counties and that TCJS Executive Director Wood "telegraphed" that he "would like to resolve this quickly."

Should Wood conclude that Travis County does not warrant an exemption, that $1.2 million expense may not be considered so optional. Eckhardt said she plans to update interested parties when the Commissioners Court meets again on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

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Travis County Sheriff's Office, Travis County Corrections Complex, Sarah Eckhardt, Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Brandon Wood, Darren Long, Gerald Daugherty

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