After an extended period of testy discussion, the Hays County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted 4-1 to adopt a new contract with Securus Inc. for inmate phone calls and video visitation.
County Judge Ruben Becerra was the sole dissenting vote.
The proposal, which was sponsored by Pct. 4 Commissioner Walt Smith and Sheriff Gary Cutler, differed from an item on a December agenda sponsored by Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell in duration and structure.
While the previous proposal called for a five-year contract, the one approved was for three and a half years (the current contract was set to expire in June). Also, the contract utilized the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO).
“NASPO ValuePoint provides the highest standard of excellence in public cooperative contracting,” background materials say. “By leveraging the leadership and expertise of all states and the purchasing power of their public entities, NASPO ValuePoint delivers the highest valued, reliable and competitively sourced contracts offering public entities outstanding prices.”
The court also approved a second, related item authorizing the county judge “to execute a Master Services Agreement” with Securus “related to tablet services and application in the local jail.”
Jail Administrator Lt. Julie Villalpando gave a short presentation in which she told the court the new contract would lessen the cost of a 15-minute (the longest allowed) phone call from $10.41 to $4.80. Under the current contract with Securus, video visitation – popular with the families of inmates who are not from the local area – is $5.95 for 20 minutes. As required by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, two free, in-person visits are allowed each inmate each week.
“With this contract we’re adding video units and phones needed for the jail expansion,” Villalpando said. “I’m excited about adding other features like a video relay system for hearing impaired inmates to communicate with their family.”
The system would also greatly increase the number of phones available to inmates within their kiosks. Tablets, which will come later, would allow inmates to consult legal documents (like in the jail’s law library) as well as educational, religious and other materials.
“Securus is the undisputed leader in this industry,” Villalpando said, and will train jail employees in how to use all the new technology.
She also spoke to the urgency of the vote, saying the phones and other hardware need to be installed before inmates are moved into the newly-renovated areas of the jail. Replacing Securus equipment and infrastructure with that of another vendor, she said, could cost taxpayers $30,000. “Equipment, networks, infrastructure would all need to be pulled out and replaced. That could delay the project. Not approving a contract today would also mean phone rates would stay the same.”
Villalpando and Sheriff Gary Cutler both stressed that the sheriff’s office has nothing to do with the financial workings of the system. Securus collects the money and sends a percentage to the county’s general fund through the office of County Auditor Marisol Villarreal-Alonzo.
When called on to speak by Becerra, Villarreal-Alonzo said that although she has not performed a detailed audit, the books show that the Securus sent in excess of $183,000 to the general fund. “Funds are always deposited into that one item,” she said. “We have been given the reporting info we need from Securus. Every fiscal year we pull those reports.”
Smith, who said he sponsored the agenda item because he asked to, said he was impressed by “the sheer number of our inmates” that use the service. “I view this as a service to our inmates.”
Becerra had complained that since the item was not added to the agenda until Friday, he had inadequate time to review the contract.
“I’m simply trying to be a good fiscal steward,” he said. “I’m trying for the best deal we can get and that within that deal, we’re not gouging the inmates.”
Becerra and Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalbe questioned whether the contract could be for a shorter period of time, and Becerra also asked if anything in it precluded the county from trying to find a company with a better deal, or even working up a system in-house.
Villalpando said the length of the contract was set by NASPO. In response to his other question, County Attorney Mark Kennedy said, “We do not have the software engineering capacity or hardware capacity to develop this product, so the answer is no.”
“Personally, I think this is a win for Hays County and a win for families,” Villalpando said. She said the jail is currently averaging about 650 in-person visits a month and about 2,400 video visitations.
Gonzales Ingalsbe, who appeared to have reservations about the contract, said she could support it because of the savings for inmate families – a decision she came to after a call from her aunt.
“She was very concerned about her son, her son is in jail. It made me feel really bad. She was saying, ‘my son is in there and it’s costing me a lot to talk to him.’ I know personally that it does affect families.”