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More jails use video visitation

By Dylan Bradley and Juan A. Lozano
May 24, 2015 at 4 a.m.

In this photo taken on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, inmate Jesse Cole is shown on a television screen as his son William, 4, center, reaches to touch the screen while his mother, Edna, holds 8-month-old Jesse James, during a video visitation with at the Fort Bend County Jail, in Richmond, Texas. Prisoners’ rights advocates are worried that the growing use in the U.S. of video technology to facilitate visits between inmates and their family and friends at county jails and prisons is part of a trend to eliminate the more traditional in-person visit. But officials who run these facilities say video visitation has been a boon to their efforts to improve security and increase visiting hours. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

RICHMOND — Four-year-old William Cole saw his father's face and reached out to touch it during a jail visit. But he could only feel a video screen.

The Fort Bend County Jail, southwest of Houston, is among a growing number of jails and prison systems across the U.S. in which video visitation has replaced the more familiar in-person visits, where people are in the same room but separated by thick glass.

William's mother found it jarring to have to communicate with her husband through pixels rather than face to face. In video visitation, inmates and their visitors are not in the same room but see each other on computer or television screens.

"This was a very big shock for me," said Edna Cole, 24, as her son talked with his dad from one of 34 screens in the jail's visitation area. "I'm used to actually being able to see them in person, and here I can't do that."

Officials who run the facilities say video visits have improved security and increased visitation hours. However, prisoners' rights advocates worry the trend is to eliminate free in-person visits for a system they say is full of technical glitches and eventually could require families to pay a fee.

Because of the backlash, the Texas House recently approved a bill guaranteeing a minimum of two in-person visits per week at county jails, but it's unclear whether the measure will pass the Senate.

Even if the measure is approved, East Texas jails might not be affected by it.

The Gregg County Jail doesn't use video visitation, partly because the visitation program in place is sufficient, and partly because putting in the technology would mean spending money, Sheriff Maxey Cerliano said.

"We haven't done it because we're comfortable with the facilities that we have and the face-to-face that we're able to offer to inmates twice a week, so we're good with that," Cerliano said. "Primarily it has to do with inmate movement; if they're doing video visitation, then there's less inmate movement involved because they can visit directly from their cells.

"That's by technology, and technology costs (money), and that means someone has to pay for it."

He said the Sheriffs' Association of Texas opposes the bill.

"It affects the ability of the sheriff to determine what's in the best interest regarding providing visitation for inmates in the individual counties," Cerliano said. "In other words, it takes away the local discretionary decisions to choose whether or not to use video visitation or face-to-face visitation. "

Rusk and Upshur county jails also have opted for non-contact face-to-face visitation instead of video visitation.

"We've never even considered it, since we've got a brand new jail. I think it's four years old, and ours is non-contact; they can't get out," Rusk County sheriff's Sgt. David Roberts said. "That's the reason a lot of these jails are going to video, because they don't have the set up we have now where it's non-contact."

Unlike other area jails, Smith County doesn't have any other non-contact visitation option aside from video. The visitation rooms for face-to-face don't have glass separation, and everyone sits in the same room.

Because of this, Smith County jail probably won't have to make any changes if House Bill 549 passes. An amendment to the bill exempts jails that have incurred significant expenses by Sept. 1 to provide video visitation.

Smith County still has face-to-face visitations, but it's granted on a case-by-case basis, said Lt. Gary Middleton, the public information officer for the sheriff's office.

"Naturally, we have rooms if your attorney wants to talk to you. That's allowed, and then if we get a request for face-to-face, we will consider it," he said.

"I filed HB 549 because I was genuinely dismayed by what I was hearing about folks in certain counties across Texas not being able to visit face-to-face with friends and family who are in jail awaiting trial," bill author House Representative Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, said in an email. "My wish would have been not to exempt any jail facilities from this bill, but the politics of the situation were more than I could overcome, and the grandfathering amendment was added to the bill over my strenuous objection."

— Dylan Bradley is a News-Journal staff writer; Juan Lozano writes for the Associated Press.

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