Better security or just a "prisoner perk?" That is the debate surrounding the latest technological innovation in Texas prisons -- video chat screens. The Travis County Jail is the first in the state to offer the service, which allows inmates to conduct their regular visitations over a secure video line directly from their cells. Roger Wade with the Travis County Sheriff's Office says this is a closely monitored system that will mirror traditional visitations. "We are watching to make sure there is no violation of law going on while they do their visit," he tells KTRH. "It's not a chat room, it's a secure visit between the family member and the inmate." While the video screen chats can be used as much as once a day, inmates will still be entitled to two in-person visits per week.
Prison officials hope the system is successful so it catches on elsewhere in the state. Wade says it will make for better security because inmates won't have to be transferred out of their cell every time they have a visitor. "We're seeing a benefit to our staff, and to the safety and security of the inmates, because we're not moving inmates from their cells to a visitation center." He adds that encouraging more communication with family members has proven successful in improving inmates' behavior and rehabilitation. "If inmates have the support of family and are able to visit with them while in the facility, they are able to re-enter into society that much easier," he says.
As for the cost, the entire system is being paid for by a company called Securus Technologies. "They installed the video units, phones and everything," says Wade. "So it didn't cost the Travis County Sheriff's Office or the taxpayers of Travis County anything." Securus charges a $20 fee for a 20-minute call, of which less than five dollars goes back to the county. Whether this is a blueprint for other Texas prisons remains to be seen. State Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), who chairs the State Senate Criminal Justice Committee, told KTRH he was still looking at the Travis County system to weigh its pros and cons.