Law­suit blasts vis­i­ta­tion rules at Knox County jail

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - OBITUARIES - MATT LAKIN KNOXVILLE NEWS SEN­TINEL

KNOXVILLE — A pro­posed class-ac­tion law­suit filed by a dozen in­mates at the Knox County jail claims the sher­iff’s video-only vis­i­ta­tion pol­icy vi­o­lates their con­sti­tu­tional rights.

The com­plaint filed last month in U.S. Dis­trict Court con­demns the ban on in-per­son vis­its as “cruel and un­usual” and lists other griev­ances that in­clude over­crowd­ing, a lack of fresh air and ex­er­cise, sky-high com­mis­sary prices and poor med­i­cal and men­tal health care.

The law­suit claims the video vis­i­ta­tion sys­tem, pro­filed by the News Sen­tinel last year, rou­tinely mal­func­tions and leaves in­mates and their fam­i­lies star­ing at blank screens with no re­funds.

The in­mates’ de­mands in­clude an end to longterm lock­downs — which the law­suit claims some­times last as long as 48 hours at a time — and a re­turn to face-to-face vis­i­ta­tion for in­mates with fam­ily mem­bers in vis­i­ta­tion booths rather than by video.

“A pris­oner’s con­nec­tions to their fam­ily or re­li­gious com­mu­nity may be their only source of hope,” John Eldridge, the in­mates’ lawyer, wrote in the law­suit. “So­cial in­ter­ac­tion and mean­ing­ful ac­tiv­ity are cru­cial to hu­man well-be­ing. … The long-term de­pri­va­tion of mean­ing­ful so­cial in­ter­ac­tion has had a neg­a­tive im­pact.”

Knox County Sher­iff’s Of­fice spokes­woman Kim­berly Glenn re­fused com­ment on the law­suit.

Sher­iff Tom Span­gler has called jail over­crowd­ing a per­sis­tent prob­lem and fund­ing for ex­pan­sion — es­ti­mated in the neigh­bor­hood of $40 mil­lion — “an im­me­di­ate need.”

SCREENED OUT

For­mer sher­iff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones in­stalled the video vis­i­ta­tion equip­ment in 2014 as part of an elec­tronic in­mate man­age­ment sys­tem through a con­tract with Se­cu­rus Tech­nolo­gies. Rel­a­tives of in­mates can ei­ther set up on­line ac­counts and visit from home for $5.99 per half-hour or re­serve a kiosk at the down­town jail or the Roger D. Wil­son De­ten­tion Cen­ter on Maloneyville Road for a free visit.

Free vis­its are lim­ited to one hour per week; re­mote vis­its have pre­scribed hours but no limit.

The sys­tem also in­cludes elec­tronic tablets that in­mates can use to ac­cess a closed server not di­rectly con­nected to the in­ter­net and view sites such as CNN and ESPN, read e-books, play games and ex­change mes­sages with fam­ily and friends for 40 cents per mes­sage. In­mates get 15 min­utes of tablet time per day un­less they pay $4.99 for a 24-hour gold pass.

The law­suit claims the sys­tem of­ten fails to work as ad­ver­tised and saps money from fam­i­lies that of­ten can’t af­ford to pay an in­mate’s bond in the first place.

“Some­times [Cur­tis Lane, one of the in­mates] can­not see the face of the caller be­cause the kiosk [cam­era] is based on fa­cial recog­ni­tion and the per­son call­ing, as well as the in­mate, has to be very still or the kiosk blurs,” Eldridge wrote. “There are fre­quent tech­ni­cal is­sues that in­ter­fere with the phone call on the kiosk, and the kiosk vis­i­ta­tion of­ten ends abruptly be­fore the time has ex­pired with no re­fund to the in­mate or the vis­i­tor. … The line to ob­tain [tablets] is of­ten long with lim­ited time out of the cell, and the tablets are of­ten not charged or non­func­tion­ing. … One hour of re­mote vis­i­ta­tion ev­ery week for one year costs $1,246 to the vis­i­tor.”

The jail forces in­mates to rely on an elec­tronic law li­brary, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, which means in­mates can’t con­sult the re­sources they need when their tablets don’t work. On top of the fees for vis­i­ta­tion, in­mates are charged ever-in­creas­ing com­mis­sary fees for snacks, soap, tooth­brushes and other in­ci­den­tals, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint.

Eldridge ar­gues the ban on in-per­son vis­its vi­o­lates in­mates’ First Amend­ment right to free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion, the Eighth Amend­ment ban on cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment and the 14th Amend­ment’s guar­an­tee of due process. Most in­mates in the jail haven’t been tried yet and there­fore re­tain their ba­sic civil rights.

Julie Gautreau, an as­sis­tant Knox County pub­lic de­fender, heads up Face to Face Knox, a grass­roots group de­mand­ing a re­turn to in-per­son vis­its at the jail.

The group has or­ga­nized protests against the vis­i­ta­tion pol­icy but won’t be join­ing the law­suit.

“We’ve in­de­pen­dently heard about these is­sues as well,” she said. “We sup­port the lit­i­ga­tion, but we’re go­ing to con­tinue to raise aware­ness in our own way.”

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