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To What End, Assessing the Impact of the Knox County Jail's Ban on In-Person Visits

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To What End?:
Assessing the Impact of the
Knox County Jail’s Ban on
In-Person Visits
Face To Face Knox
Knoxville, TN
January 29, 2018

Introduction
Since April 2014, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office has banned in-person visits at all county jail facilities.
In the place of in-person visits, the Sheriff promoted a new “video visitation” system, requiring jail
visitors to interact with residents through a video kiosk located inside the facility. Friends and family
could also contact residents through a remote video call, but they could do so at the cost of $5.95 [now
$5.99] per visit, assuming they had the necessary technology. When the ban was initiated, the Sheriff’s
Office gave the following reasons for eliminating in-person visits:
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Decreased visitation traffic—requires less staff
No contraband entering jail
Easier on visitors (dress codes, searches, etc.)
No travel to visits (for remote video calls)
Lessens impact on children
Benefits to disabled persons and elderly who cannot visit in person
Lessens chances for violence
The cost is $5.95 [in 2014], “less than two gallons of gasoline”

The Sheriff did not present evidence at the time to explain the sudden shift in policy. Even three years
later, when Face To Face Knox asked for empirical evidence to support these claims, the Sheriff’s Office
simply claimed that its policy was “innovative,” suggesting no further evaluation was necessary.
Because the Sheriff’s Office refused to provide data, Face To Face Knox conducted an open records
request, seeking answers to the following questions:
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How many inmate-on-inmate assaults were recorded at the Knox County Detention Facility in
the three years prior to the ban, and how many have were recorded in the time since the ban?
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How many inmate-on-staff assaults were recorded at the Knox County Detention Facility in the
three years prior to the ban, and how many have were recorded in the time since the ban?
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How many possession of contraband cases were assessed at the Knox County Detention Facility
in the three years prior to the ban, and how many were assessed in the time since the ban?
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How many disciplinary infractions were assessed at the Knox County Detention Facility in the
three years prior to the ban, and how many were assessed in the time since the ban?
One explanation--both then and now--was conspicuously absent: the video call system makes money for the County, while in-person visits do not. Under the County’s current contract with Securus
Technologies, the County takes a 50% “commission” on every remote video call, which goes into the
County’s general revenue fund. Because Securus pays the full cost of installing and operating the system, there is no need for the county to charge an extra fee. Face To Face Knox requested invoices to
determine exactly how much revenue the county generated from commissions on the video calls. Over
more than three years, Knox County has taken nearly $70,000 from individuals trying to stay in touch
with their friends and loved ones.
The results are clear: The ban on in-person visits makes the jail more dangerous, does nothing to stop
the flow of contraband, and strips money from the pockets of families. It’s time to end the ban and give
visitors the option to see their friends and loved ones face to face.
TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 2

Findings
PR
ofi
t

Knox County Takes Money From Families
50 cents of every dollar paid by a friend or family member on a video call goes directly into the County’s general revenue fund. From
March 2014 (when the video call system was installed), to November 2017 (the most recent month where data is available), the County
collected $68,777 from commissions--an average of $1,528 a month.
Under its contract with Securus, the County pays nothing to install
or operate the system, so the fees are superfluous. Every dollar made
by the county is one taken from friends and family who are simply
trying to stay in touch with their loved ones at a difficult time.

a
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Banning In-Person Visits Does Not Stop Contraband
The data collected shows no drop in reported cases of contraband.
Prior to the ban, visitors could not have physical contact with inmates; they could only speak through a plexiglass screen. It is unclear how contraband is entering the jail, but the sheriff’s office
cannot use visitors as scapegoats. An influx of contraband is not
an excuse to enact punitive, anti-family policies that do nothing to
solve the underlying problem.

Saf
ety

Banning In-Person Visits Makes the Jail More Dangerous
The ban has made the jail less safe for both inmates and staff. The total rate of
assaults increased by an average of one assault per 100 inmates after the ban was
enacted in April 2014. With a population of about 1,000 inmates at the Detention
Facility, this means there are, on average, ten more assaults every month. Disciplinary infractions have also increased slightly since the ban went into place.
The ban on in-person visits does not fully explain this increase, but studies have
shown that it is harder to build trust and intimacy through video communications than through a personal conversation. In addition, inmates at the Detention Facility must speak to their “visitors” at pods with other inmates nearby
who can eavesdrop. It should not be surprising that violence in the jail increases
when inmates are deprived of any meaningful, private communications with
their friends and family.
TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 3

TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 4

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The Need For Visits
Not only is the ban ineffective, but the benefits of
in-person visits are clear. A comprehensive study
of state prisons in Minnesota showed that more
frequent and recent visits were associated with
a decreased risk of recidivism (meaning that the
more visits someone received in prison, the less
likely they were to commit another crime upon
release). Psychologists have found that in-person visits and video calls do not provide the same
quality of interaction. Even assuming the technology works perfectly, the conversation during
a video call is less fluid, making it more difficult
to engage in complex conversation, establish trust,
develop intimacy, and create a social connection.
(See Appendix for sources.)

prefer in-person visits. This evidence in part convinced local leaders to reinstate in-person visits.
A survey of visitors in Knox County would likely
produce similar results.
To be clear, Face To Face Knox is not asking for
video calls to be eliminated at the Knox County
jail. Video calls serve as a useful alternative to
in-person visits in some instances, such as when
friends and families live outside of Knox County, or do not have access to transportation. If the
calls are free, or priced only to recover the costs of
operation, then there is no reason not to give that
option to inmates and visitors.

Nationally, the American Correctional AssociaThe public understands this. In December 2014, tion, the American Bar Association, and the Na13 people, including the president of the Knox- tional Institute of Corrections all support making
ville chapter of the NAACP, spoke before the in-person visits available in jails. On the other
Knox County Commission to in favor of restoring hand, no report conducted has found that banning
in-person visits. No one spoke in favor of elimi- in-person visits is sound correctional policy. With
nating in-person visits. In Texas, the Travis Coun- our findings here in Knox County, Face To Face
ty sheriff’s office surveyed jail visitors, asking Knox adds one more piece of evidence indicating
whether they prefer to visit in-person or through a that bans on in-person visits are counterproducvideo screen, 91 percent of respondents said they tive, ineffective, and inhumane.

1

Recommendations

Immediately restore in-person visits at the
Knox County jail, and work with advocates
and affected invididuals to craft a visitation
policy that maximizes opportunities for
in-person visits, and makes the jail facilities
accessible and welcoming to visiting friends
and family.

2

Stop accepting commissions on video
calls. Because the county did not pay to
install or operate the video call system, it
should take a cut that needlessly increase
the costs for families. Further, the County
should offer free remote video calls to individuals who cannot afford them.

TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 6

Support
The following local, state, and national organizations endorse the findings and
recommendations in this report:
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Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office | Knoxville, TN
Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Knoxville Chapter | Knoxville, TN
Knoxville Community Step Up | Knoxville, TN
East Tennessee Community Defense | Knoxville, TN
University of Tennessee Student Peace Alliance | Knoxville, TN
Church of the Good Sheperd | Knoxville, TN
No Exceptions Prison Collective | Nashville, TN
Free Hearts | Nashville, TN
Southern Center for Human Rights | Atlanta, GA
Prison Policy Initiative | Northampton, MA
National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls | Boston, MA
National Participatory Defense Network/Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project | San Jose, CA
Young Women’s Freedom Center | San Francisco, CA
Silicon Valley De-Bug | San Jose, CA
A.L. Costa Community Development Center | Union City, CA
New Beginnings Re-Entry Services | Mattapan, MA
Montgomery County Community Action Development Commission | Montgomery Co., PA
Juan Schwanker Fathers & Families of San Joaquin | San Joaquin, CA

To What End?: Assessing the Impact of the Knox County Jail’s Ban on
In-Person Visits
Face To Face Knox is a grassroots coalition of citizens in Knox County who seek just and humane
treatment for incarcerated individuals at the Knox County jail, and advocate for policies that
improve the well-being of the incarcerated and their families.
More information at face2faceknox.org
Facebook/Twitter/Instagram: @F2FKnox
This report was written by Tex Pasley, a Staff Attorney at No Exceptions Prison Collective.
Contact him for further information at tex.noexceptions@gmail.com, or (210) 844-8387. Julie
Gautreau, Lori Labotka, and Miriam Nelson of Face To Face Knox edited previous drafts.
Special thanks to Lucius Couloute and Bernadette Rabuy of the Prison Policy Initiative, for developing the visuals and providing invaluable research assistance.
TO WHAT END? | JAN 2018 | 7

 

 

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