by Peter Wagner, September 9, 2014
Today the Dallas County Commissioners Court refused to approve a proposed contract with prison telephone giant Securus. The contract would have required the jail to end visiting hours and instead force families to pay for expensive video visits via computer.
After County Judge Clay Jenkins courageously spoke out against the proposed contract, a movement quickly came together, coordinated by Texas CURE, to urge the other County Commissioners to support Judge Jenkins. (In Texas, the county legislature is called a “Commissioners Court” and the person elected county-wide to be the county’s chief administrator is called the County Judge. For more, see this wikipedia article. )
As I argued in a New York Times Room for Debate feature, prison and jail video communication has the potential to offer additional avenues for critical family communication, but charging unconscionable sums and banning free in-person visits is a step in entirely the wrong direction.
Today, after several hours of eloquent and unanimous testimony and the submission of more than 2,000 petitions from SumOfUs and other petitions collected on NationInside and Change.org, we beat back this horrible proposal!
Now things got a little complicated procedurally, but this was a big, albeit interim, win. The Commissioners Court didn’t approve Judge Jenkins’s order to reject this contract and start over with completely new criteria that would prioritize getting the best service possible for both families and Dallas County, but the Court soundly rejected the two most critical parts of the proposed contract: the ban on in-person visitation and the collection of commissions for video visitation. (At least one commissioner supports commissions in the phone context, but many are opposed there as well.)
As I understand it, the Commissioners Court voted to propose changes to the contract to:
- protect in-person visitation
- renounce the commission on video visitation
- seek clarity on other details, including the number of video visitation terminals that would be provided.
The County proposed to, at next week’s meeting, approve a new request for “Best and Final Offers” based on the county’s new and improved understanding of the importance of keeping families together, and then to send these new requirements out to all of the bidders on the contract to solicit new proposals.
Obviously, some details remain to be worked out, but what seemed clear to us watching the video of the hearing is that the Commissioners Court now understands that in-person visitation is important and that it shouldn’t let Securus — or any vendor — entice the county into breaking up families just to make an extra buck.
Stay tuned for how we can ensure that Dallas finalizes a contract that supports families and benefits all residents of the County, and stay tuned for our forthcoming report on the video visitation industry.