When Kyle French was incarcerated at Harris County Jail for four months, phone calls and handwritten letters were his lifeline. 

One unexpected letter the 39-year-old received during his time behind bars stood out: a handwritten note from Sister Gilmour, a missionary in French’s church. Gilmour’s letter, written in black pen on the torn-out pages of a notebook, recalled memories from church of his brightness and curiosity, and urged him to remember he is loved.

The feeling of holding a physical piece of paper or hearing the voice of a loved one over the phone can “make or break you,” the former Crosby resident said. 

Kyle French
Kyle French, who spent four months in the Harris County Jail, said letters and calls help get him through his time incarcerated. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

“The letter that she wrote to me felt like she was talking to me … and it just gave me hope, it made me realize that I’m gonna survive this ordeal, that things are gonna be OK,” French said. 

But traditional mail at the Harris County Jail will soon end, the casualty of a new contract between the county and Securus, one of the nation’s largest and most-criticized prison tech companies. 

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, plans to introduce tablets and other paid digital communication services at the facilities, while doing away with most physical mail. Legal mail and outgoing mail will continue at the jail, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Securus, which already ran phones at the jail, will provide tablets that allow those incarcerated to communicate with loved ones through text and video, as well as access entertainment and legal library resources — often for a price. Incoming mail will arrive as scanned images on the company’s tablets.

The contract also includes new ”investigative products” used to surveil jail communications, such as Word Alert, which allows jail staff to search text messages for specific words or phrases in multiple languages.

The Harris County Commissioner’s Court unanimously approved the contract in May, with the switch to tablets expected at an undetermined date following county infrastructure upgrades. Sheriff’s officials say the change will improve communication, keep incarcerated people occupied and bolster safety at the packed jail, where over 9,000 people are housed each day. Jail officials cited instances of people consuming chemical-soaked letters and setting paper on fire.

“This is all being done because we feel strongly that it’s going to improve quality of life for people in the jail,” Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Jason Spencer said.

Exterior view of the Harris County Jail
The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston will soon transition to providing more digital-age communication tools to incarcerated people, ending most physical mail delivery in the process. (Marie D. De Jesús/Houston Landing)

But some advocates condemn the changes and the county’s continued affiliation with Securus, which has long been plagued by accusations of excessive surveillance, poor customer service and profiteering

Securus will provide coupons for two free 20-minute video calls per month, but any additional calls will be $1.99 for 20 minutes. A brief text message can cost as much as 10 cents, an email-like message can run nearly 25 cents, a 30-second video message is 72 cents and downloading one song can reach $2.23. Taxes, fees and a requirement to use Securus’ debit accounts for making payments will apply.

“Seems like they’ve been itemized down to the atomic level of how much money they can get,” French said. “Why are they trying to make money off of inmates? These folks don’t have money. If we had, if they had money for bail, they wouldn’t be sitting in jail pretrial.”

Over 75 percent of those jailed in Harris County have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Controversial jail fees

Harris County’s move follows years of efforts by advocates to eliminate the cost of Securus phone calls from jail — fees that some of them have called a “love tax.” The push resulted in the county giving incarcerated people up to four free calls per week and lowering the per-minute price from 18 cents to 1.5 cents as part of the new Securus deal. 

Joanna Weiss, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national advocacy nonprofit, said the expanded digital access is good but the costs are cause for concern.

County records suggest Securus could expect to make $4.5 million or more annually from the Harris County Jail on its five-year contract, which could be extended nine more years. The company did not share its profit margin in response to a request from the Houston Landing. The contract could get renegotiated if the jail’s population drops. 

Harris County also is promised a minimum commission of $500,000 through a 10 percent share on sales from some of Securus’ new systems. Spencer noted that commission revenue must go back into “services or goods that benefit people in jail,” per state rules.

“The way the contract is set up does not incentivize the agency to make sure that people in custody and their families are getting the best services at the most reasonable price, because they’re profiting themselves,” Weiss said.

‘A gap that needs to be filled’

Securus’ parent company, Aventiv Technologies, said in a statement that “eliminating digital deserts in corrections facilities requires capital,” and it emphasized the benefits of lowering phone costs and providing new, free services on tablets. People in jail can access a law library, e-books, educational content and addiction recovery resources. 

“While these facilities compete with other public funding initiatives, from education to health care, for overstretched tax dollars, there is a gap that needs to be filled,” Aventiv Technologies spokesperson Jennifer Jackson-Luthe said in a statement. “Over the past four years we have invested more than half a billion dollars nationwide to provide needed infrastructure.”

Texas Jail Project founder Krish Gundu said her organization, which works across the state, often sees a drop in communication between jailed people and those on the outside once digitized mail and tablets are introduced, due to the cost and heightened surveillance of communication by jailers. 

“Payments mostly have to be made via credit cards, which (some) indigent people do not possess, so they often end up paying higher single-use fees,” Gundu wrote in an email to the Houston Landing. “Additionally, there are always technical issues which are never adequately addressed when people inside and their loved ones outside file complaints about poor service.”

Early this year, a policy memo issued by three advocacy organizations — the Texas Jail Project, Texas Advocates for Justice and Restoring Justice — warned against future expansions of Securus’s contract to include more services and fees. 

“Right now, there is no reason to believe that other communications services, beyond phone calls, such as video calling, electronic messages, tablet services, and investigative tools, provided in the new contract will be introduced without the same predatory practices, further harming the county and communication users (inmates and their families),” read the January memo. 

Spencer called the move “a huge step forward” and “an acknowledgment that this is the way people communicate now.” He noted that the new entertainment could keep a calmer jail for those who work there.

“Our goal is to provide this higher level of service at the lowest cost possible while still exercising proper stewardship of taxpayer resources,” Spencer said in a statement.

As to letters, Spencer said: “The safety and efficiency concerns outweigh any nostalgia associated with being able to hold a piece of paper.”

French said that he understands jail officials’ worries about chemical-laced letters, something he witnessed while incarcerated. French was released from jail in late February and said he saw jail guards beat Jacoby Pillow, who died while in custody in January. The FBI is investigating Pillow’s death

Still, French said having a piece of paper touched and tailored by a loved one is important to surviving the jail. He blamed faulty oversight, rather than the paper itself, for safety issues. 

“Jail is a very desperate place,” French said. “Just having contact with your family, your loved ones, your children means the world when you have nothing.”

Correction, July 10: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the spelling of Sister Gilmour’s name.

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Eileen Grench covers public safety for the Houston Landing, where two of her primary areas of focus will be the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Office. She is returning to local...