Denver sheriff will work on restoring in-person visitation for jail inmates

It’s been more than a decade since inmates in Denver jails could have in-person visits with friends and family members.

The Denver Justice and Detention Center 

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It’s been more than a decade since inmates in Denver jails could have in-person visits with friends and family members. Instead, they use old video technology to maintain their connections.

Next week, a working group that includes community members and jail officials will start discussing how and when to allow inmates to have “contact visits” with their loved ones from the outside world, as well as what it would cost to reconfigure the county jail and staff in-person visitation.

Division Chief Elias Diggins said there is no timeframe for making a recommendation but the group will “work expeditiously.”

“We understand this is very important to the community,” he said. “We want to make sure we do this right.”

The impetus for the working group comes from Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell and community groups. In his most recent report, Mitchell recommended the Denver Sheriff Department develop a plan to restore in-person visitation before the Denver City Council approves a $1.4 million contract for a new video visitation system. Mitchell feared that investing a lot of money in new technology would create an incentive to use it exclusively. The company supplying the technology, Securus Technologies Inc., has included provisions in some of its contracts that actually prohibit cities and counties from allowing any in-person visitation, but that’s not the case with the Denver contract.

Nonetheless, the likelihood that the Denver City Council will approve Securus’ contract means there’s no real time pressure on the working group. The City Council’s safety and housing committee forwarded the contract Wednesday to the full council with no dissent.

“I’m encouraged that the department has committed to reinstating in-person visitation, and I’ll be working with them to make sure their new visitation program adheres to national standards and monitoring how they ultimately implement the new program,” Mitchell said.

The jail ended in-person visitation in most circumstances after problems with contraband and domestic violence, Diggins said. There remains some very limited contact visitation for bereavement.

Officials said the technology that will be available through Securus will be a considerable improvement and could include the possibility of family members visiting with inmates from home, rather than from a visitation area in the jail. The vendor that installed the current video visitation system in 2005 has gone out of business.

Council members said they are interested in seeing a return to in-person visitation, though.

“I was shocked when I heard about it, and it does not sit right with me at all to have that level of deprivation,” Councilman Paul Kashmann, chair of the safety and housing committee in an interview before the meeting.

Council President Albus Brooks said he worries about the impact on inmates’ psychological well-being when they cannot see their loved ones in person.

Studies have found lower recidivism rates among inmates who have contact with family members while incarcerated. Preventing in-person visitation is not considered best practice by the American Correctional Association, which says technology should supplement, not replace, in-person visitation.

The Colorado Department of Corrections, whose inmates — unlike jail inmates — have all been convicted of felonies, allows in-person visitation and some physical contact like holding hands and a brief embrace between inmates and visitors. Texas recently passed legislation that guarantees jail inmates access to in-person visitation.

“The pendulum across the country is swinging back to offering options for visits,” Diggins said.

Diggins said in-person visitation likely would be reserved for a small subset of the jail population.

“The people in custody who are the best behaved and the lowest security risk, mothers who need to bond with their children … jails across the country are restoring it for a limited population,” he said.

There are significant space constraints that would make in-person visitation difficult at the Downtown Detention Center, and visitation is more likely to be restored at the county jail, where inmates serving longer sentences are held.

There will be a cost associated with this — and perhaps construction — so it’s not going to happen immediately, even once a proposal is made.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.