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Two Texas counties to restart in-person jail visits

Sep 10th, 2015 | Category: Hays County, Taylor County, Wood County

By Tom Benning

AUSTIN — Two Texas counties have been told they must once again allow jail inmates access to in-person visits under a new law that took effect this month.

Wood County in East Texas and Hays County in Central Texas were among 31 counties that formally asked for an exemption under the legislation, which aims to curb the trend of county jails offering only video visits.

But the Texas Commission on Jail Standards determined that those two didn’t incur a “significant” expense to install their video systems. That was the key threshold — added to the bill — to escape the new rules.

The decision marks a small victory for inmate advocates, who’ve pushed to protect in-person visits in as many county jails as possible. But it also means that nearly 30 counties — including Denton County — will get to maintain restrictions on those traditional meetings.

“All in all, we did the best we could,” said Rep. Eric Johnson, a Dallas Democrat who wrote the bill.

Those who back in-person visits argue that it’s the right and smart thing to do, given the potential to reduce recidivism. Proponents of video visits counter that the technology saves money and differs little from what’s used on personal computers.

The law didn’t outlaw video visitation. It just set the expectation that county jails will offer two 20-minute in-person visitation periods each week. That settles the issue for Dallas County and most others.

But an amendment by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, provided an out for counties that had already invested in the video-only visits. Without that grandfather clause, Johnson’s bill probably would’ve died.

To determine the exemption’s scope, the jail standards commission looked in recent weeks at 31 counties that offer only video visits in at least some parts of their facilities.

That list included the likes of Denton County, which uses video visits in all but special circumstances. But it also included places like Tarrant County, which limits in-person visits just for the jail’s maximum-security inmates.

Wood and Hays counties were the only ones on the list not to receive the exemption after it was determined they had not incurred a “significant expense.”

“The vendor did not charge them for the equipment or installation,” said Brandon Wood, the commission’s executive director.

A third county, Taylor County, might also receive only a partial exemption. The commission is still gathering additional information.

Wood and Hays counties could appeal the decision, but Brandon Wood said the two counties were already crafting action plans to change their policies.

Five more counties tried to rush last-minute plans for video-only systems, but they weren’t even considered for the exemption.

Wood County Sheriff Jim Brown said the video visits, which began about a year ago, had “worked great.” But he said his office would meet the mandate, noting that restarting in-person meetings would be easier because his office never took down its visit booths.

“Other than the inconvenience of moving inmates back and forth, we’re in good shape,” he said.

Officials at the Hays County sheriff’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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Lauren Gootee
5 years ago

This article states that The Taylor County Detention Center may have partial exemptions. What does that mean? Visitations are 100% video at this facility and it is so impersonal.

Thank you.

  Lauren Gootee
5 years ago

Maybe because interactions with criminals shouldn’t be personal. Pretty obvious, Lauren Gootee. Try spending some personal time with people who aren’t criminals.