Senate Backs House on In-Person Inmate Visitation

Inmates in some Texas county jails may no longer have to speak to loved ones on a video screen, after the Senate voted Monday to pass a House measure guaranteeing a minimum of two 20-minute, in-person visitations per week.

Inmates in some Texas county jails may no longer have to speak to loved ones on a video screen after the Senate voted Monday to back a House measure requiring in-person jail visitation.

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. Speaking ahead of a vote on the Senate floor, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who sponsored the bill in the upper chamber, said that in-person visitation "keeps families together and cuts down on divorces."

"Often, inmates need to be seen and talked to, to be encouraged to do the right thing – told to cooperate, get back to work, and get back to your family," said Whitmire.

The legislation comes in response to a recent move to so-called video visitation by several county jails, citing cost savings and security concerns. Currently, county jails in Texas may offer either video or in-person visitation, though many facilities have eliminated in-person visitation altogether. A recent study estimates that 43 states now use video visitation in jails and prisons.

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.

These concerns were mirrored by Whitmire, who said he had recently learned that the company with a "monopoly on video visitation" was intending to charge visitors in the future to speak to inmates. He called the thought of charging families who had traveled to a county jail to see an incarcerated loved one "unconscionable."

An amendment successfully added in the House by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, creates an exception for under-construction and already built jails that did not include in-person visitation facilities. According to Whitmire, this will include a total of 21 facilities. 

A number of Senators rose in support of the measure and particularly the grandfather clause that will spare facilities in their districts from retrofitting expenses.

"I appreciate you being sensitive to local government and sensitive to the costs that could have arisen out of this," said Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.

The legislation, which passed with a vote of 24 to 7, now heads to the governor's office.