House Gives Tentative OK to Visitation Rights for Inmates

County jail inmates in Texas may no longer have to look at visiting loved ones on a video screen under legislation tentatively passed by the state House on Monday.

County jail inmates in Texas may no longer have to look at visiting loved ones on a video screen under legislation tentatively passed by the state House on Monday. 

Currently, county jails in Texas may offer either video or in-person visitation to inmates. Citing cost savings and security, some facilities have eliminated in-person visitation altogether, though they still require family members to travel to the jails to see inmates via video. Under House Bill 549 by state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, certain county jails would be required to offer prisoners a minimum of two 20-minute, in-person visitation periods per week. 

"It doesn't limit the availability of video visitation; it simply requires that in-person visitation in our jails be left intact," said Johnson, speaking ahead of a voice vote on Monday. "It relates to county jails, not prisons – 60 percent of those who are there are innocent, waiting for trial, and couldn't afford the bond to get out of of jail."

If the measure receives final approval from the House, it will go to the Senate.

The legislation comes in response to a recent national move toward so-called video visitation, an alternative to in-person visitation that supporters claim is more secure and less expensive for jails. It also allows lawyers to consult remotely with their incarcerated clients. A recent study estimates that 43 states now use video visitation in jails and prisons.

But critics of video visitation have denounced it as a for-profit endeavor that has further disconnected inmates from the outside world. According to Johnson, eliminating in-person visitation has led to an increase in inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults in Texas jails. Advocacy groups have also pointed out that not all visitors have the technological literacy required to use the devices and that glitches and poor audio quality are common.

"When jail standards were written, the idea of connecting people by video was not a twinkle in anybody's eye," said Kymberlie Quong Charles, the director of criminal justice programs for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin organization that advocates for inmates. "In our opinion, it is not the equivalent in quality of an in-person visitation."

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, successfully tacked on an amendment to the proposal that would create an exception for under-construction and already-built jails that did not include in-person visitation facilities. That amendment will apply to a dozen counties, including some with large county jails, according to Grassroots Leadership.

"I appreciate this bill and I understand the value," said Coleman. "But I also understand the value of county taxpayer dollars that have already been spent."

But Quong Charles said the amendment weakens the bill.

"It is a dangerous precedent to protect any of these counties," Quong Charles said. "None of these counties thought about what the impact would be of removing in-person visitation."

And Johnson was one of five House members who voted against the amendment. "I don't like the idea of exempting any counties from this," he said.