With fate of program uncertain, BCSO defends video visitations

Sheriff-elect Salazar to seek public input on program

SAN ANTONIO – Months after the Bexar County Sheriff's Office moved to a video-visitation program, complaints have emerged from inmates and their families that the transition has not been seamless.

"They have it fixed up where anybody can come see you. (It) doesn't matter if it's an ex," said inmate John Salazar, who has been held at the Bexar County Jail since his arrest for felony drug possession in June.

"As long as those slots are open, anyone can jump in and take them," Salazar added, referring to the state mandated two visits per week for each of the jail's roughly 3,600 inmates.

Salazar said that on four separate occasions, an ex-girlfriend has appeared on-screen instead of a family member.

The mother of a second inmate made a similar complaint with the Defenders after the county's multi-million dollar video-visitation system replaced in-person visits in September.

In-person visitations were phased out completely last month, except in rare circumstances, according to previous reports about the program.

"The inmate knows who the visitor is before they start that video visitation. If he starts that video visitation and he is engaged in a conversation with that person, it will count against one of his mandatory visits," BCSO spokesman James Keith said.

According to Texas Commission on Jail Standards guidelines, visits refused or canceled by inmates do not count toward the two visits they are given per week.

However, visits that have lasted ten minutes or more do count, even if the inmate attempts to then cancel it, according to the TCJS standards.

Keith called the video-visitation system a "game-changer" and pointed out that many people who were against the program before it was launched are now supporters of it.

Instead of waiting for in-person visits at the jail, family and friends of inmates now take part in visits at a facility down the street.

"This has been one of the most successful projects to take place at the Sheriff's Office ever. We have had tremendous success with this transition," Keith said.

According to records provided to The Defenders by BCSO, only 18 of the 42 video visits scheduled for Salazar took place.

Keith pointed out that many of the canceled visits were due to inmate restrictions placed on Salazar.

"None of his visits have been canceled or eliminated because of circumstances outside of his control," Keith said.

Sheriff-elect Javier Salazar, no relation to the inmate, said last week that he plans to seek public input before deciding the future of the video-visitation program.

"Like any technology, it's nice to have it as an option. I don't know that going to it exclusively is the answer. I don't know that it's not the answer," Javier Salazar said. "From a human-rights perspective, it bears looking into."

Javier Salazar officially takes office New Year's Day. He said he is conducting a "top-to-bottom" examination of BCSO's policies and procedures.

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