Other Voices

Tarrant County sheriff speaks to for-profit companies taking advantage of inmates, families

The recent political battle in Dallas County over the proposed video visitation of inmates in the Dallas County Jail brings to light a troubling trend. Politicians, jail administrators and Sheriffs are often so eager to bring dollars into county coffers, they are willing to do it by taking money from those who are innocent of any wrongdoing, and many times can least afford it.

The ploy is a familiar one to us in the business. A company offers to take over some task (in this case jail visitation) not only taking a burden off of the Sheriff’s office and saving taxpayer money but also splitting a sizable profit with the county.

At first glance it seems a great idea: recoup some dollars spent by taking money from those incarcerated, either charged or already convicted of a crime. But the truth is the person in jail usually pays nothing, because most have no money or resources. The burden of the fee falls upon the friend or family member, who in this case, just wants to visit a loved one or friend.

In almost every case, whether it’s visitation fees, putting money into an inmate’s commissary account, phone calls or anything else, when a for-profit company gets involved the goal is for that company to profit. The businesses are quick to point out how much money the county will make from the venture, but very quiet about how much the company keeps for itself.

A not uncommon practice in Texas county jails has been to not only punish inmates, but visitors as well.

When I first took over the Tarrant County jail system in 2001, visitors were looked upon as a nuisance and treated almost as criminals themselves. Family members, from the very old and infirm to infants in mothers’ arms, waited for hours in the hot sun to visit. Visitation times were limited, causing large crowds to gather during the appointed hours. Many times visitors would travel some distance only to find the line so long they were told they could not visit. They were turned away even though they had arrived long before the end of visiting hours.

I immediately made sweeping changes to our visiting rules, throwing things wide open. We now allow visits from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, in each of our five jails. Restrictions are few and we work to make it as easy and welcoming for visitors as possible. There are seldom any lines and no more waiting for hours to visit.

Our only video visitation is in our maximum security jail, and it’s completely free of charge. Inmates who want to go back to personal, face-to-face visits need only change their behavior to be removed from that facility. It is proving to be a great incentive for those worst-behaved inmates.

Since the changes, inmate morale and unrest has improved, our jails are safer to work in and equally important — visitors are now treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

I often remind my staff that “there but for the grace of God goes any of us.”

None of us ever plans to have a relative incarcerated. In fact, some members of my staff have had family members in our jails and suddenly were forced to see things in a whole new light. There is nothing like walking an unexpected mile in another’s shoes to change perspective.

We are fortunate in Tarrant County that the Sheriff’s Office and the Commissioners’ Court work closely together sharing common goals. So far all attempts by those wishing to make quick profits off those less fortunate have been thwarted. I will continue the fight to block any such efforts.

Dee Anderson is sheriff of Tarrant County.