Coalition calls for end to ban on in-person Knox County jail visits

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It’s a program that took inmate visitation from face to face to behind a computer screen.

“I can go to the zoo and see a wild animal in the flesh, but I can’t even see my own daughter,” Laura Barr, mother of a Knox County inmate, said.

Instead of friends and family in Knox County talking with their incarcerated loved one in person, for the past few years, their mode of communication has been through a live video kiosk, located at the detention facility’s visitor center. 

Those who use it say conversation does not always go smoothly. 

“There’s no eye-to-eye contact and if we move, it goes out of focus,” Barr said. “It gets blurry and there’s a delay.”

The other option is to skip the drive down to the jail and hold live visitations right from one’s home, as long as they have the proper technology. 

“I don’t have access to a computer to do that,” Barr said. 

Families also need to be able to afford the 30 minute video chats.

“For every remote video call, a family has to pay $6 for the call and the county government didn’t pay a dime to install or operate the system, so they don’t need to charge that high of a rate,” attorney Tex Pasley said. 

The idea behind this alternative to in-person jail visits was to reduce visitation traffic, which requires less jail staff.

The hope was to also prevent drugs from trickling into the jail and reduce violence. A coalition is coming together to challenge whether banning in-person visits was a good idea.

“Clearly most people would prefer in-person contact and there’s research showing that that’s actually better for people,” Pasley said. 

Addie Arbach’s father was in prison, and she said those in-person interactions meant the world to her family.

“I know personally that connection means everything and we’re keeping people disconnected. We’re punishing families, and it’s not right.”

The group points to research that shows no decrease in reported cases of contraband and an increase in violence since the ban was enacted in 2014. 

“The number of assaults has actually increased, so we would argue against their contention that this is improving safety and reducing the flow of contraband,” Pasley said. 

According to open records documents the coalition obtained from the sheriff’s office, 50 cents of every dollar paid for a video call goes into the county’s general revenue fund.

Research also shows the rate of assaults has increased an average of one assault per 100 inmates since the ban.

The coalition agrees there should be the option of video chats, but the group also believes that friends and family deserve the choice of having that in-person meeting with their loved one. 

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