Yakima County jail inmates are texting, threatening victims from behind bars

This is the second story in an investigative series looking at the domestic violence problem in the City of Yakima. The first story in the series was Yakima has a domestic violence epidemic and a new coalition hopes to fix it.

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. —  The Yakima County jail is facing controversy over a tablet program that allows inmates to text people outside the jail — including their victims.

Police officers assigned to domestic violence cases have said they’re seeing inmates abuse their texting privileges to threaten victims of domestic violence, scare them into taking back their statements and compel them to stop cooperating with authorities.

“A handful of inmates can generate thousands of texts that are all in violation of a no-contact order,” Yakima Police Det. Mike Durbin said.

Durbin said when victims — who would likely have continued to cooperate with police otherwise — get texts from their abusers threatening to hurt or kill them or their loved ones if they don’t recant their statements, they feel they have no choice but to comply.

“There’s always that risk of potential violations and I understand that law enforcement is concerned with that,” said Jeremy Welch, interim director of the Yakima County jail. “But what we can’t quantify is the benefit that they might be getting from that communication with family and friends, that are keeping them encouraged and getting them through a hard time.”

Welch said when corrections officials learn an inmate has potentially used the text messaging app on their tablet to violate a no-contact order, intimidate a witness or otherwise abuse their communication privileges, they can immediately review those messages to determine if a violation has occurred.

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Jail staff can block the victim’s phone number from the inmate’s account or restrict them from using the text messaging app entirely, for however long they determine is necessary. At that point, inmates may face additional disciplinary action within the jail system.

Durbin said while it’s good that the jail can discipline inmates who break the rules, the bigger issue is preventing them from violating the no-contact orders in the first place because once the threats are made, the damage is done.

When police no longer have the testimony or support of the victim backing charges of assault, harrassment, rape, unlawful firearm posession, violation of a no-contact order, or other domestic violence-related offenses, Durbin said that’s when cases start to fall apart. That can lead to charges getting dropped and abusers back on the streets.

“A few months later, we’re back where we started and the cycle of abuse just starts over,” Durbin said.

ASPEN Victim Advocacy Services program manager Debbie Brockman said she was shocked when she learned inmates were allowed to send texts from within the jail. She said while she understands the intentions are good behind allowing inmates access to texting, the results are troubling.

“The unintended consequences are that it gives them an easy way to intimidate, threaten or coerce their victim while in custody,” Brockman said.

Brockman said one of the greatest barriers for victims wanting to leave an abusive relationship is the fear of future violence and receiving threatening text messages only compounds that fear — for a good reason.

“We know that a person is much more likely to be seriously injured or killed when trying to leave the relationship or when they have recently just left the relationship,” Brockman said.

Search warrants required for inmates’ texts, but not their phone calls

Police officers are also getting frustrated with how difficult it is to get ahold of inmates’ text messages to use as evidence in ongoing criminal investigations.

Instead of being able to quickly access the information like they can with inmates’ recorded phone calls, officers are having to request search warrants for the text messages.

Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Brusic said the requirement was established out of an abundance of caution. Since providing inmates with access to text messaging is a relatively new phenomenon, it’s not covered under the state laws dictating procedures for inmates’ phone calls and mail.

Brusic said if the jail were to hand over text messages without a search warrant, it’s possible the court could determine the evidence wasn’t obtained legally, rendering it inadmissible.

“We want, as a system, to protect that evidence and make sure that it’s admissible to the best of our ability,” Brusic said.

However, Durbin said it’s difficult to get probable cause for a search warrant when a victim stops cooperating or recants their statements out of fear of their abuser.

Brusic said the issue likely won’t be resolved until legislators push to include a new provision in state law that specifically addresses text messaging in jails.

Tablet program began in late 2019 to provide inmates with education, entertainment and communication options

The Yakima County Department of Corrections used revenue from inmates’ commissary purchases in 2019 to buy 500 tablets loaded with educational and entertainment programs from a company called Edovo.

“It’s dropped violence within the jail because they’re busy on tablets and aren’t messing with each other while they’re in the units or causing issues,” Welch said.

Edovo tablets are based on a reward system; if an inmate spends a certain amount of time on educational programs, they earn points that allow them access to entertainment options, which include movies, TV shows, books, music and games.

More than 150 correctional facilities across the country have contracted with Edovo and hundreds more have partnered with other corrections technology companies to provide access to similar programs.

All the educational programming and entertainment options are free for inmates. Welch said the only paid program included on the tablets is the text messaging app.

“I will say, myself and other staff were a little skeptical of the tablets but I think at the end, it has bettered the system,” Welch said. “Even if they’re doing it just to get to the entertainment, they’re at least learning something, which in turn, should make them a better community member.”

Depending on the location of an individual’s unit and how many tablets are available at the time, inmates can check out a tablet anywhere from twice a week to every other day. Inmates have their own unique login and the program records which applications they are using and for how long.

The tablets run on the jail’s internal WiFi network, which was set up by Edovo on a closed server. There are restrictions on the tablets to prevent inmates from accessing anything other than the programs approved by the jail.

“These do not have access to the outside world other than the messaging,” Welch said.

Inmates can access college-level classes, vocational training, social sciences, religious programs, legal information— and get their GED.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce recidivism and try to keep them out of custody,” Welch said. “And if we can help one person by providing them some education that encourages them to get their GED when they get released, then we’re doing a good thing.”

Welch said even if an inmate doesn’t finish the GED program while incarcerated, they can still log in on a different device once they’re released to complete their GED.

Text messaging app increases inmates’ communication options, jail officials say

Prior to the text messaging app, inmates had limited options to communicate with family and friends outside of the jail: phone calls, video conferencing and “snail mail.”

When inmates are first arrested, they can make two phone calls for free through the Securus Technologies system. After that, inmates can place collect calls or rely on family and friends to set up prepaid collect or debit calls.

Any call within Washington state costs $1.50 for the first minute and $0.12 per minute after that. Welch said calls are limited to 15 minutes and there are not enough phones to go around.

Before the pandemic hit, 70 inmates in the jail annex — which houses lower-level offenders — were sharing just five phones. Welch said sharing or time limits aren’t an issue with the text messaging app.

“Now all 70 inmates have a piece of equipment in their hands that they could be messaging family and friends and not have to wait their turn for a phone call,” Welch said. 

Since there is no in-person visitation allowed at the jail, any face-to-face interaction with family happens through video conferencing, which is also run through Securus Technologies.

Limits for video conferencing are even more strict. Welch said inmates cannot request a video conference, but have to wait until someone outside the jail makes a request.

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Inmates can send as many letters as they want, as long as they can pay for postage. If they do not have the money to buy stamps, the jail will allow them to send three letters per week for free.

However, Welch said sending mail back and forth does not allow for the immediate or frequent communication inmates can get by using the text messaging app.

 

While the text messaging is not actively monitored, the jail uses a program that automatically scans for keywords like violence, drugs or assault and jail staff can follow up on any texts that are flagged by the system.

Inmates also cannot send or receive phone calls, videos, voice messages or pictures through the text messaging app. They pay about $10 for 200 messages or $20 for 500 messages.

Welch said when an inmate sends a text, it notifies the recipient that an inmate at the Yakima County jail is attempting to contact them. He said if people do not want to receive text messages from an inmate, they don’t have to accept the terms and conditions.

“The messaging has to be accepted by the receiving party,” Welch said.

Most jail inmates are awaiting trial, not already convicted

While everyone serving time in prison is there because they’ve been convicted of a crime, Welch said that’s not the case in a county jail.

“I get that the public views them as criminals, but many and most of the individuals in here are not convicted yet,” Welch said. “They’re still waiting for their day in court and they’re presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

Inmates convicted of lower-level crimes are typically in jail for 30 days or less, at which point they go back home. Welch said he wants them to use that time to better themselves in a way that may make them less likely to reoffend.

“These individuals are going to go back into the community at some point, potentially, so we’re trying to make them better community members by providing this education and connection to their families,” Welch said.

Other inmates accused of serious crimes like murder can wait years in the jail before they go to trial. Welch said in some cases, a jury may eventually decide they were innocent of the crimes for which they were accused.

“They are presumed innocent, so they still have that right to communicate with their family — as long as they’re doing it properly,” Welch said.

Welch said inmates who are there for a short period of time benefit from communication with loved ones, but the benefit is even greater for those incarcerated for long periods of time while they wait for the court to hear their case.

Jail plans to keep text messaging app going, but will consider potential solutions to the no-contact order violation problem

Law enforcement officials have asked the jail why they won’t just remove inmates’ text messaging capabilities. Welch said the main reason is that most inmates are not abusing the text messaging app and are benefiting from easy access to communication with loved ones.

“I wish I could quantify the good that comes from the messages; unfortunately, I probably will never be able to do that,” Welch said. “But with the amount of messages that are going out, you know that they’re keeping in contact and keeping these individuals engaged and making them want to get back out into the community and be a better person.”

Welch said the other issue is that it would cost the jail several thousand dollars a year to remove texting. Edovo earns revenue from inmates paying to send text messages, which is why they offered the jail a discount to include the text messaging option.

“If we stopped the text messaging, we would have to pay the additional cost of the rental fee that we pay per month to have those tablets on site,” Welch said.

Welch said depending on what options are available to the jail under state law, they might consider restricting access to the text messaging app up front for inmates accused of crimes involving domestic violence or witness intimidation.

Another possibility, Welch said, is for judges to include a provision in the no-contact order specifying that the offender cannot have access to text messaging while they are in the county jail.

Welch said he plans to continue communicating with other entities involved in the City of Yakima domestic violence coalition to find a middle ground that will provide inmates access to communication while protecting crime victims.

“That’s what we really want to do at the end of the day is to help each other out and hold people accountable that continue to violate no-contact orders,” Welch said. “We want to prevent the victims from being harassed and that’s everybody’s goal at the end of all this.”

WATCH THE FIRST STORY IN KAPP-KVEW’S INVESTIGATIVE SERIES LOOKING AT THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE PROBLEM IN THE CITY OF YAKIMA: Yakima has a domestic violence epidemic and a new coalition hopes to fix it.

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