The Austin Chronicle

County to Restore In-Person Jail Visits

Commissioners passed a $707,000 measure to bring in-person visitation back to the county jails

By Chase Hoffberger, October 2, 2015, News

It won't be part of the budget, but it will be back in county: On Tuesday, commissioners voted to approve a measure that will re-implement in-person visitation at Travis County jails. The $707,000 approval, to be funded through savings from the Travis County Sheriff's Office, comes after a month of deliberations over whether or not Travis County was eligible for a grandfather clause allowing certain counties to not comply with House Bill 549. The law passed in the recent Lege session requires county jails to allow inmates two 20-minute in-person visits each week.

Travis County had initially received a waiver from the law based on the "significant cost" incurred installing the video vestibules inmates currently use to communicate with their families and loved ones, but last week the Texas Commission on Jail Standards made known that it was having second thoughts. Travis County didn't pay for installation of the newest systems; Securus Tech­nologies did. The Dallas company fronted the cost for the 2013 installation of its systems, arranging with county officials to take a significant cut of profits from the service. (TCJS already determined that the county's circumstances do not satisfy the "physical capability" exemption contained in HB 549.)

TCJS Executive Director Brandon Wood met with County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and members of the Sheriff's Office Thursday to consider the county's qualifications for a complete waiver. There, Eckhardt – who advocated earlier in the week for bringing in-person visitation to the Travis County Correct­ional Complex through a $1.2 million amendment to the budget opposed by her four commissioners – acknowledged that the county has in fact incurred $777,556 in costs associated with bringing video visitation to TCCC, though the costs were associated with a system that was removed when Securus began working with Travis County.

"Although Buildings 2 and 12 are arguably eligible for the 'Significant Cost' exemption due to the investment in a video system that is no longer in use, a partial exemption would be inequitable to inmates and their families and be problematic from a practical and fiscal standpoint given the layout of our jail facilities," she wrote to Wood in a letter "memorializing" the conversation. "For these reasons the Commissioners Court and the Sheriff's Office wish to restore in-person visitation across the board and as soon as possible in the Travis County jails."

So while TCJS continues deliberating on whether or not Travis County should be grandfathered into a complete exemption, county commissioners and the sheriff's office are moving forward. On Tuesday, commissioners passed the $707,000 measure that will bring 14 new full-time employees on board at the TCSO and in turn bring in-person visitation back to the county jails. Eckhardt has also asked TCJS to allow the county one year to come into full compliance with the law, saying that the ensuing year will be spent allocating funds, installing the necessary scheduling software, recruiting, hiring, and training staff, and phasing in new buildings at both Del Valle and Downtown. The judge said Tuesday that she expects TCJS to be satisfied with that plan.

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