Dallas County approves video chats, keeps in-person visits

Commissioners Court approved a contract to install video-visitation technology in the jail

By Matthew Watkins
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS COUNTY, Texas — Dallas County inmates will soon be able to video-chat with friends and family on the outside.

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a contract to install video-visitation technology in the jail. And to the relief of advocates for inmates’ rights, the deal won’t require the county to end in-person visits.

Commissioners approved the contract with Securus Technologies after more than two hours of debate and months of controversy. County Judge Clay Jenkins was the lone dissenting vote.

He and others complained that the service provided by Securus exploits inmates and their families for profit, typically sharing those profits with the counties that hire the company.

Under the deal approved Tuesday, Dallas County will not get a cut of the revenue generated by video chats.

But Securus was also hired to provide inmate telephone service at the jail, and the county will collect 60 percent of the charges for phone calls. Originally, the county was to get a share from both phone calls and video visitations.

Commissioners and the county staff called the final contract a good compromise, one that takes into consideration the finances of the county and of inmates’ families.

The goal is to have the system running early next year.

Each 20-minute video chat will cost $10. Inmate phone calls will cost 20 cents a minute. Through the two services, Securus stands to generate millions in revenue.

The company will install the video-chatting technology at no charge and recoup its costs through the fees it charges.

Last year, jail phone calls brought in $2.8 million for Dallas County.

The county has been working on a video-visitation contract since January. The first draft, which came to the Commissioners Court in September, would have eliminated face-to-face jail visits. Opponents saw that as an effort to increase use of the video system, which would in turn increase profits for Securus — and, under the proposal as then written, for the county.

Jenkins and others argued that face-to-face visits are important to inmates and their families. The commissioners agreed and asked the county staff to renegotiate the contract to preserve in-person visits.

Even with that change, Jenkins and inmate advocates criticized Tuesday’s deal. They expressed concern that once the video technology is up and running, the county could change its mind and ban in-person visits. And they said the county’s 60 percent cut of phone-call charges was exorbitant.

“I believe this contract is predatory,” said Anthony Bond, one of about two dozen people who showed up to Tuesday’s meeting to speak against the deal. “This is preying on poor people.”

Supporters of the deal said the 20-cent-a-minute charge for phone calls is among the lowest in Texas. Inmates are usually limited to 15-minute phone calls, staff members said, so the most they would be charged for a call would be $3.

Commissioners stressed that the video-visitation service is optional. Inmates and their families won’t have to use it if they don’t want to spend the money.

The debate turned heated at times. Commissioner John Wiley Price accused Jenkins of using “misinformation” in opposing the contract. And the normally reserved Theresa Daniel became visibly frustrated with Jenkins’ repeated warnings that in-person visits might later be eliminated.

“Everyone at this table has made a commitment to ensure the fact that the continuation of in-person visitation is a top priority,” she said. “I take it as a little bit of an insult that you will not ... [trust] that commitment.”

After the vote, Jenkins said he was disappointed but pleased that some changes had been made.

“This is not as bad as it could be,” he said. “Had the community not stepped in and held the elected officials accountable, it could have been worse.”

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