McLennan County spent about $2 million in 2010 to install video visitation for jail inmates, but a bill moving through the Texas Legislature that requires inmates have in-person visits has the potential to undo all that and force the county to rebuild its visitation system.

McLennan County Sheriff’s Capt. John Kolinek said if House Bill 549 is signed into law, the result would be costly.

“We would have to figure out some sort of way to accomplish that,” he said. “It would be an issue for us from a staffing standpoint.”

The bill, proposed by state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, was approved by the House this month and now sits in the Senate.

“When I learned what was going on, I was disgusted and knew my colleagues would be as well,” Johnson said, adding that inmates who are denied bonds or who can’t afford the money to bond out of jail should still be able to see their loved ones in person instead of only through video conferencing. “A person doesn’t forfeit their humanity simply because they are poor. No member of the legislature would accept this for their loved one in county lockup, so why subject the poor in our counties to something we wouldn’t tolerate for ourselves? That’s the reason I filed this bill.”

Johnson also expressed concern that some counties charge visitors to use video visitation centers. But, those in McLennan County don’t pay for video visitation.

Kolinek said inside the Shepherd Mullens Visitation Center off Marlin Highway there are 40 monitors that offer real-time visits with inmates housed in the McLennan County Jail on State Highway 6. Visitors register, and are directed to a numbered monitor where they speak through a phone handset while looking at a video projection of the inmate on the other side.

Visits are free, and the screen cuts off right at 20 minutes after a warning tone to alert both parties that time is almost up, Kolinek said.

State law

Inmates by state law are allowed two, 20-minute visits a week. The visitation center, which is staffed by three people, is open from 1 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

“Having access or video visitation has been a huge positive for us,” Kolinek said.

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara called HB 549 bill a recipe for disaster.

The McLennan County Jail has about 1,000 inmates. If those inmates used both visits per week, that would be 2,000 prisoner transfers a week and potentially another 2,000 to 4,000 visitors, McNamara said. The manpower to monitor both the inmates and the visitors during that process would be extensive, he said. Any time an inmate is moved there’s a potential for a security risk, he said.

“It could be an absolute nightmare,” McNamara said.

Dustin Chapman, a legal adviser for the county, said the cost to buy the land for the existing video visitation center, construction, equipment and infrastructure cost the county about $2 million.

Lonnie Hunt, Texas Association of Counties county relations officer, said his organization opposed the bill, mainly, because it would take authority away from locally elected sheriffs.

The Fiscal Note for the bill, prepared by the Legislative Budget Board, acknowledges that the fiscal impact to counties may be significant, Hunt said.

“There may be a cost to counties to meet certain minimum standards for prisoner visitation. County jails may have to modify or upgrade their current visitation systems and may require additional staff to supervise visits and escort inmates. The fiscal impact would vary depending on a county jail’s resources and may be significant,” Hunt said, quoting the document.

“That’s kind of a scary thing,” he added.

More than 500 facilities in 43 states and the District of Columbia use video visitation, according to a January 2015 Prison Policy Initiative report.

McNamara said the visitation center has worked well since it was put in place, and added, if people want to visit inmates face to face, the prisoner should have never committed a crime.

“Don’t get put in jail, and you can visit them all you want too,” McNamara said.

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