Video chatting will debut Wednesday at the Travis County jails, the first lockups in the state to feature the technology.
The online chatting, available to the roughly 2,000 inmates in the jail, will cost $20 for a 20-minute call and can be scheduled as often as every day. All inmates will still be entitled to two in-person visits a week.
County commissioners in October unanimously approved a contract with Securus Technologies Inc. to run the video chatting. The company, which also runs the jail system’s inmate phone and email systems, will collect most of the $20 fee and give the county $4.60 per call. Visitors can sign up for appointments with inmates in the Del Valle and downtown jails on Securus’ website, securustech.net/videovisitation.
“Maintaining contact with family members is very helpful and keeps the person focused on getting out. The big danger of prisoners is their isolation, learning things from each other that are criminal and slipping to the culture of criminals,” said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Officials said that they don’t know how much the online visits will be used, but that the technology will likely reduce visitor traffic in the often-crowded visitation plaza at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle, where the vast majority of the county’s inmates are housed.
The jail’s administrator said video conversations, which can be monitored and recorded by jail staff, will be safer for officers because the inmates wouldn’t be moved out of their four- to 58-person units to a separate building. Attorneys can also use the online chatting to privately visit with inmates for free.
“This new technology provides another option (for visits) and, at the same time, it keeps inmates inside their units and prevents the spread of contraband,” Sheriff’s Maj. Darren Long said. “We’re not catering to the inmates.”
The Del Valle jail has had some video visitation for about three years already, with inmates in one building meeting with family or friends in a different building in the complex, but the new system will allows friends and family to chat with an inmate from home.