Panel Paper: Weak Connections & Lost Signals: Video Visitation in Texas County Jails

Sunday, April 9, 2017 : 10:40 AM
HUB 269 (University of California, Riverside)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kari T. Pennington, University of Texas at Austin
This project analyzes the recent expansion of video visitation technology in county jails, using the products of primary research on twenty counties in Texas as a case study.  It examines the increased prevalence of jail policies which restrict or prohibit in-person visits and promote video visitation, and what effects these policies have on jail operations and people who are detained. 

Any person charged with a criminal offense may be held in jail custody while awaiting trial.  This experience of pretrial detention is difficult for many defendants.  A bail hearing may not be scheduled until days after the arrest, and if the defendant cannot afford to pay the bail amount or hire a bail bondsman, they will remain in detention until the resolution of their case.  Even a few days behind bars can create problems for a defendant regarding employment, housing, child care and custody, and more. Maintaining support systems during this time is crucial.

The recent advent of video visitation technology offers opportunities for defendants to connect with family and friends who could not otherwise travel to visit.  However, many jurisdictions have eliminated in-person visitation altogether after installing video visitation terminals.   There are often high costs and additional fees for video visits, and many service provider contracts include a provision for jail administrators to receive a percentage of the revenue.  When there is no alternative way to communicate, the cost of video visitation can prevent defendants from staying connected to their support systems. 

Previous studies have found correlations between restrictions on in-person visitation and increases in jail violence, disciplinary infractions, and recidivism.  The elimination of in-person visits has adverse effects on people outside of jail as well, most notably the children of detainees.  For these reasons and more, there is a growing movement to restore in-person visitation in all jails and preserve video visitation only as a supplemental option.

The main feature of this project is a case study regarding jail visitation policies in a representative sample of twenty Texas counties.  It begins by summarizing previous research and presenting the legal requirements and professional standards regarding jail visitation.  Next, it tracks the introduction, passage, and implementation of SB 549, a bill passed in 2015 directing Texas counties to provide all jail detainees with the opportunity for at least two in-person visits of twenty minutes every week.  Then, it discusses the provision of SB 549 which created exemptions for eligible counties.  This is followed by a census of twenty county jails, which includes past and current visitation policies, local implications of SB 549, data on jail incidents, and relevant news items.  It concludes with policy recommendations based on the synthesis of previous research and new primary research, including discussion of the political feasibility of these proposals.