- Associated Press - Friday, January 9, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) - Ruth Lawhern leaned close to the divider in the jail visitation stall, raising her voice as her husband pressed his ear to the other side of the thick glass.

“What did they tell you about getting an MRI or an X-ray of that cut on your head?” Lawhern shouted.

Her husband, Chris Trevino, 43, gestured that he couldn’t hear. Lawhern tried again, shouting even louder, her voice adding to a cacophony of sound from nearly 20 visitors in the small visitation room on the second floor of the Harris County jail.

The group - mostly women, several with small children in tow - had to yell messages, some intimate and personal, at loved ones through small metal screens in the glass. Speakers in the screen barely carry sound, visitors to the Baker Street jail complain, but it is the only way families and friends can communicate since telephone handsets were removed before Sheriff Adrian Garcia took over in 2009.

For years, visits have been a frustrating experience at the Harris County jail, where visitation policies are among the most restrictive of the state’s five largest county jails. And while Harris County’s jail system is the largest in Texas, with an average daily population of 8,700, it has lagged in adopting technology to improve visitation that other counties have embraced, including video visitation for inmates.

“I have to take three buses to get over here to see my husband, and they give me 15 minutes and I can’t hear half of what he says,” said Lawhern, who lives in Pasadena and tries to visit Trevino twice a week. Lawhern told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1xZAb3T ) that because she often can’t hear what her husband said, she must follow up her visits with a collect phone call from her husband, yet another expense for a woman who is simply trying to support her spouse.

While there are those who regard liberal visitation policies as tantamount to coddling criminals and say they allow for contraband to enter a correctional facility, a number of studies have concluded that visitation benefits society by keeping inmates from resuming a life of crime when they are released.

Ohio prison officials, in a 1999 study, noted that visitation not only helps efforts to rehabilitate inmates while they are locked up, but provides a bigger benefit after they are released.

“The prisoner who has maintained contact with supportive individuals such as family and friends has a ‘safety net’ when he or she returns to the community,” wrote Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio state prison system. “Family and friends provide a feeling of belonging to a group. They often help released offenders seek and find employment and conduct themselves in a positive, constructive manner after release.”

In 2011, the Minnesota Department of Corrections published an exhaustive study concluding that “prison visitation can significantly improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community.” The study noted that any visit reduced, by 13 percent, the risk of a new felony conviction and dropped by 25 percent the risk of violating release conditions. Visits from clergy, fathers, brothers and sisters and in-laws were the most beneficial to the inmate’s future conduct after release, the study found.

Garcia cut visitation to the county jail in 2011 - from seven to four days - a move the sheriff said at the time would save $1.3 million annually in overtime pay for detention officers as the county faced a budget crisis. Asked why the visitation was not restored as county finances improved, Director of Public Affairs Alan Bernstein said there have been no recent complaints from the public.

Civil rights advocate Amin Alehashem, staff attorney and regional director for the Texas Civil Rights Project-Houston, expressed concern over limited jail visits.

“People often think that jails are there solely for the purpose of punishment, but as a society we’re better off when it serves the secondary purpose of rehabilitation,” Alehashem said.

Harris County allows inmates four 20-minute visits each week, to take place during the 21 hours of visitation offered over four days.

In contrast, Tarrant County jail inmates can receive up to two visits a day in Fort Worth lockups, where visitation is allowed seven days a week from 9 in the morning to 9 at night, or a total of 84 hours a week. The Bexar County jail also limits visits to four days, but offers a window of 30 hours of overall visiting time during the week.

Since 1975, Texas law has required that jails provide a minimum visitation of at least two visits - one during a weekday evening and one on weekends - and several mid-sized counties, including the Neuces County jail in Corpus Christi and El Paso jails, have limited visits to two days a week.

Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, believes the state’s minimum two visits per week is sufficient and notes that visitation can help maintain order inside a jail.

“It can be used as a tool for controlling inmate behavior because inmate visitation is a privilege and not a right,” Wood said. “If you do have a discipline issue, visiting can be suspended, so it can used to reward inmates for behaving properly in jail.”

The jail commission has not conducted a study to see if visitation is a factor in reducing the recidivism rate, although Wood acknowledged there may be a connection.

“Any time an inmate is not agitated, the stress level is going to be lower, so you might be able to gather a correlation between the two,” Wood said.

In Austin, the Travis County sheriff in May 2013 eliminated most face-to-face visits inside county detention facilities, a measure officials said would improve safety for inmates and staff. They installed a video system that allows inmates’ families and friends to talk to them over a private computer at home - for a fee of $20 for a 20-minute session - or two times a week at no charge at video terminals installed at a visitor’s center in South Austin.

The free visits are allowed five days a week, Tuesdays through Saturday, from 8 a.m. through 9 p.m. - a visitation window of 65 hours.

“So far, it’s been positive,” said Roger Wade, public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. “We still, from time to time, do in-person visits for attorneys, but it’s so much easier if you don’t have to take 2,400 inmates and move them around every week to get them into visitation.”

Inmates whose relatives and friends have signed up for the visitation from home via computer can visit with them daily if they wish to pay the fee, said Wade.

“It offers a chance for more inmates to have more visits if they use a computer. With Austin being a wired city, it’s a benefit for local folks,” Wade said.

In November, Dallas County commissioners voted to join other counties where video visitation is used on a large scale.

Harris County Chief Deputy Sheriff Fred Brown, who oversees the jail system, said an existing pilot video program is allowing attorneys to have unlimited visits with their jailed clients. Brown said adding video visitation to in-person visits by the general public is again under discussion.

In 2007, county officials considered a system of video visitation, but it was not installed.

The top jail official rated the existing speaker system in the visitation areas as 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, but considers it “unacceptable” due to the levels of noise in the visitation areas.

After the Houston Chronicle raised questions about the communication problems, sheriff’s officials said this week that a contractor has been selected to supply 292 telephone handsets for visitation areas in the two main jails, and they expect delivery within 12 weeks.

A system that will allow visitors to actually communicate with an inmate would be heartily welcomed by Sherleria Terrell, who tries to visit her fiancé every other week. She often finds herself frustrated by the conditions in the jail visitation rooms.

“This is ridiculous,” said Terrell, 30, as she attempted to make herself understood to her boyfriend during a recent visit. “These speakers don’t work, and I can’t deal with the noise. It’s wack.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com


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