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Face-to-face jail visits becoming rare as video trend sets in

Legislator would halt practice, return to in-person interaction


Neisha Dshawn Minger speaks via video to her boyfriend, Gerald Powell, who is being held at the Fort Bend County jail in Richmond. 

Photo Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle

By Rebecca Elliott
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON, Texas — Every other week, Neisha Dshawn Minger drives 30 miles from south Houston to Richmond to visit with her boyfriend for half an hour - video only. She’s been doing it for nine months, ever since he was arrested last June for robbery.

It’s a long trip, especially in rush hour, and gas is expensive. But Minger, 19, doesn’t mind it, she says. He needs the love.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires that those incarcerated in a Texas county jail be allowed two 20-minute visits a week. Mostly this happens in person, no contact. The inmate and guest may see each other through a glass divider. But an increasing number of jails are switching over to video visitation as a more efficient, less expensive alternative to in-person visits. More than two dozen of them have already implemented the technology.

A bill introduced this session by Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, would put a stop to the trend.

“I just think there’s something inherently wrong with not allowing a father to see his family or a mother to talk to her husband or son,” said Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, whose bill mandates that each inmate at a county jail - most of whom are either awaiting trial or serving out shorter sentences - be provided a minimum of two in-person, noncontact visits a week. “How do you keep an individual from seeing his family? As another human, how do you do that?”

It’s unlikely the bill will pass, Whitmire said, at least not this year. And even if it did, many of the Houston-area jails, including those in Harris and Montgomery counties, would already be in compliance, as they offer in-person visitation.

Still, it’s raised the hackles of a number of law enforcement officials who fear the virtual system they tout as cleaner and cheaper may soon be pulled out from under them.

“Face-to-face is problematic for some jails,” said Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk, chairman of the legislative committee for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, which opposes Whitmire’s bill.

“It’s good initiative but bad judgment,” agreed Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls, who wrote a letter to lawmakers this month saying that requiring in-person jail visits would “cause a significant negative financial impact to our county and the sheriff’s office.”

Fort Bend jail
The Fort Bend jail moved exclusively to video visitation in 2009, and, according to Nehls’ letter, shifting back to in-person visitation would cost the county about $250,000 in renovations, as well as eight additional staff salaries.

These are unnecessary expenses when the current video visitation program is working well, Nehls said.

“The staffing, the security and the convenience benefits that video brings are huge,” said Lt. Daniel Quam, who supervises the jail’s visitation program.

When the Fort Bend jail offered in-person visits, the facility was open for visitation three to four hours a day, and each meeting was limited to 20 minutes.

Now, video visitation is available 11 hours each day, seven days a week, with each session lasting up to 30 minutes. Friends and family may video chat at the detention center up to twice a week, for free, and an unlimited number of times from home, at $9.90 per half hour. The proceeds are split 80/20 between the jail’s commissary and the video contractor, Montgomery Technology Inc.

For some, like Minger, this approach works well.

“It’s quick, it’s fast, it’s clean,” she said.

But others who visited the jail last week longed for a return to the in-person system. “If you drive this far, you should be able to see ‘em - see ‘em, see ‘em,” said Russell Garneau, 40, whose brother was arrested this month on a felony drug charge.

Two decades ago, Garneau was incarcerated in the Harris County jail, where he was afforded in-person, noncontact visits.

“Actually seeing the pain on my mother’s face - it was a wake-up call,” he said, explaining that on video, the emotions kind of look fake.

Edwin Jones, Garneau’s incarcerated brother, agreed that video doesn’t compare. Jones also spent time in Fort Bend’s jail prior to its shift away from in-person visiting.

“When you move, the screen messes up,” Jones said during video visitation. “Right now, the screen’s blurry.”

Not equivalent
Criminal justice experts agreed that video and in-person visitation aren’t equivalent.

“There are some nuances from in-person that you’re not getting through a screen,” said Allon Yaroni, of the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.

But when it comes to reducing the likelihood that people will return to criminal activity post-release, it remains unclear whether there is a substantive difference between video and in-person, noncontact visits, Yaroni and others said.

“There are just a lot of questions that have not been examined since it’s such new territory,” said Tanya Krupat of The Osborne Association, a criminal justice organization based in New York.

Several recent studies have found that in-person visits are indeed associated with a decrease in recidivism among prison populations, though there’s little in the way of data on those held in jail, where people are generally incarcerated for shorter periods of time.

Last fiscal year, those booked into the Fort Bend jail stayed an average of 14 days, according to Quam.

This, Whitmire said, is the good news: “Most of the people in the county jails - most of them are pretty quick turnarounds.”

But that figure takes into account everyone who quickly bails out. On any given day, most of the people in the Fort Bend facility have been there longer. Last fall, it was 133 days.

Even if his bill doesn’t pass this session, Whitmire said chances are he’ll take up the issue again.