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Activists ‘alarmed’ at Travis County ending face-to-face jail visits

Local civil rights advocates said they were “alarmed” to learn that Travis County ended face-to-face visits last year at the Del Valle jail, allowing friends and family to visit only through a video chatting system similar to Skype.

Advocates with the Texas Civil Rights Project and Grassroots Leadership urged county commissioners on Tuesday to resume allowing in-person visits. Currently, only attorneys visiting the Travis County Correctional Complex can see inmates face-to-face.

“In terms of recidivism and trying to maintain intact communities, there’s no substitute for in-person visitation,” said Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “It’s not an opportunity that should be abandoned cavalierly.”

Securus Technologies Inc. installed the system at no cost to the county last year. Securus charges outside callers $20 for a 20-minute conversation with an inmate and gives the county $4.60 from each call. Visitors coming to the jail in person must also use the video conferencing system, though there is no charge, sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Wes Priddy said.

That change to in-person visits was not clear when commissioners approved the contract in October 2012.

“We’re not changing anything else from what we’re doing,” Maj. Darren Long told commissioners then. “You can still come and do your free visits the traditional way.”

But, in announcing the launch of the video system last May, the sheriff’s office wrote that “visitation at the Travis County Jail system will be exclusively video visitation,” citing improved safety and security by not having to move inmates from one building to another for in-person visits.

The Texas Civil Rights Project and Grassroots Leadership, an organization that opposes for-profit lockups, sent a letter saying the sheriff’s office went back on its word that in-person visits would continue.

“Right now, we’re not in a position to speak to all that because we’re still reviewing it,” Priddy said.

Sarah Eckhardt, a candidate for county judge who was one of the commissioners who approved the video-chatting contract in 2012, issued a statement saying she was “surprised and disappointed” to find out the sheriff’s office ended face-to-face visits.

“The video conferencing system was always intended to supplement, not replace, in-person visitation at the Travis County Jail,” said Eckhardt, who resigned in May to run for the higher office.

Her opponent in the Democratic primary, Andy Brown, said he also “would work to make sure that family members and loved ones still have the right to visit face-to-face in the jail.”

Several commissioners said they would look into the complaints.

“They raised issues we need to address,” Commissioner Bruce Todd said.

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