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The proceeds are split 80/20 between the jail's commissary and the video contractor, Montgomery Technology Inc. "If you drive this far, you should be able to see 'em - see 'em, see 'em," said Russell Garneau, 40, whose brother was arrested this month on a felony drug charge.
Still, it's raised the hackles of a number of law enforcement officials who fear the virtual system they tout as cleaner and cheaper may soon be pulled out from under them."Right now, the screen's blurry." Criminal justice experts agreed that video and in-person visitation aren't equivalent."There are some nuances from in-person that you're not getting through a screen," said Allon Yaroni, of the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.Daniel Quam, who supervises the jail's visitation program.When the Fort Bend jail offered in-person visits, the facility was open for visitation three to four hours a day, and each meeting was limited to 20 minutes."I just think there's something inherently wrong with not allowing a father to see his family or a mother to talk to her husband or son," said Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, whose bill mandates that each inmate at a county jail - most of whom are either awaiting trial or serving out shorter sentences - be provided a minimum of two in-person, noncontact visits a week.
"How do you keep an individual from seeing his family? " It's unlikely the bill will pass, Whitmire said, at least not this year.
This, Whitmire said, is the good news: "Most of the people in the county jails - most of them are pretty quick turnarounds." But that figure takes into account everyone who quickly bails out.
On any given day, most of the people in the Fort Bend facility have been there longer. Even if his bill doesn't pass this session, Whitmire said chances are he'll take up the issue again.
"Face-to-face is problematic for some jails," said Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk, chairman of the legislative committee for the Sheriffs' Association of Texas, which opposes Whitmire's bill.
"It's good initiative but bad judgment," agreed Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls, who wrote a letter to lawmakers this month saying that requiring in-person jail visits would "cause a significant negative financial impact to our county and the sheriff's office." The Fort Bend jail moved exclusively to video visitation in 2009, and, according to Nehls' letter, shifting back to in-person visitation would cost the county about $250,000 in renovations, as well as eight additional staff salaries.
These are unnecessary expenses when the current video visitation program is working well, Nehls said.