Detainees in the Durham County Jail, and their loved ones on the outside, overwhelmingly oppose the Sheriff’s department’s proposal to implement video “visitation” – a glorified phone call – and many of us see it as the first step towards eliminating in-person visitation, as has already happened in Wake County and jails and prisons around the country. As it is, families are required to show up 30 minutes in advance for a 20 minute visit with plexiglass between them and their loved ones. The visits are cumbersome to schedule, especially for those who do not have internet access. Video “visitation” will still have all of these disadvantages. It will also still require visitors to be physically present at the jail, just to have a skype chat with their loved ones, and if/when external “visits” are permitted, it will cost “visitors” 20 cents to a dollar per minute – contributing to both the isolation and financial exploitation of detainees and their families. While the Sheriff claims that video “visitation” represents no threat to in-person visitation (that is, real visitation), according to a 2015 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, in 74% of cases where video “visitation” is introduced, real visitation is eventually taken away entirely.
The Durham County Board of Commissioners are complicit in the Sheriff’s attack on detainees’ human right to in-person visitation. According to an article in Indy Weekly, “In 2013, commissioners approved a budget amendment adding the Justice Department grant” which is funding the implementation of video “visitation” “to the sheriff’s budget. Because county departments don’t have the authority to accept grants on their own, this action was required; the board could have voted it down. That amendment specified how the grant would be used.” The commissioners also voted in favor of the Sheriff’s department contract with GTL, which explicitly provides for video visitation.
The County Commissioners also have the power to act to defend visitation. They could have defended it in 2013, had they bothered to read the GTL contract and the Department of Justice grant to the Sheriff’s department, which they voted to approve, and to consult with the public, especially detainees and their loved ones, about it. Time and again, they have displayed a remarkable capability to exercise power over the jail when put under enough public pressure, even after repeatedly protesting that they have no power to act. The most recent example of this is the role they played in removing Aramark from meal services at the jail after detainees and community members organizing with Inside-Outside Alliance raised health and safety concerns around the jail, including maggots in the food. In the same way, there are any number of steps that they can and should take to put pressure on the Sheriff to guarantee in-person visitation to detainees and their loved ones. Some of these are:
Use their power under NC state law to put the Sheriff under oath and make him answer the public’s questions about video visitation, as well as his collaboration with ICE and other human rights violations.
Reverse their decision not to hold a public meeting to hear the Durham Human Relations Commission’s report on the Durham County Jail, which explicitly recommends that in-person visitation be defended as a vital resource for detainees and their loved ones.
Use their next opportunity to vote NO on the Sheriff’s contract with GTL or any other contract that includes video “visitation” services and pressure the Sheriff to drop GTL the same way that they successfully pressured him to drop Aramark from providing meal services in the jail in 2016. If Aramark can be prevented from putting maggots in detainees’ food, then GTL can be prevented from implementing video “visitation.”
Publicly pledge to vote NO on any Sheriff’s budget that includes funding for video “visitation,” whether from the Department of Justice (who are currently funding video “visitation” for a “trial period through a grant to the Sheriff’s department) or from the county itself.
Publicly pledge to vote NO on any new money for the Sheriff’s department from the county so long as in-person visitation remains under threat.
These are just some potential steps that the County Commissioners can take to defend in-person visitation for their constituents in the jail. There are, no doubt, others, and we invite the commissioners to be creative in exercising their power – especially their budgetary power – over the Sheriff’s department. At the very least we call upon them to publicly acknowledge that they do have the power to act.
Therefore, we the undersigned demand that the Commissioners, and the Sheriff’s department, do all that is necessary to ensure:
That there is no reduction in in-person visitation in favor of video “visitation.”
That glorified phone calls do not come to replace in-person visitation in any way.
That all video visitation equipment currently installed in the lobby of the jail be removed and no new equipment be added.