Lawsuit blasts visitation rules at Knox County jail
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.”
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.”