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In front of a downtown crowd filled with colorful signs and hopeful faces, Nathan White told a story he’s rarely ever told.
Though over a decade has passed, White could recall nearly every vivid detail from the times he visited his father in prison. He recalled everything from feel of the chair against his back to the hue of his father’s orange jumpsuit, yet what stood out to him most was the separation created by the glass between his inmate dad and the rest of his family. That separation, he said, was unbearable, so when that meeting turned out to be their last, it’s the hug he couldn’t give that remains the most difficult thing to swallow.
“Nobody knew it then, but that was the last time anybody would see my father alive,” White said. “Those last moments become even more important. The last hug, the last joke, the last smile.”
To combat the separation of families from their imprisoned loved-ones, White and other members of the community gathered for a rally Monday evening as a part of an event organized by the grassroots coalition Face-to-Face Knox, a group formed to combat the Knox County Sheriff Office’s three year practice of barring in-person visitations for Knox County inmates.
Citing a report compiled through documents obtained through open records requests, Face-to-Face Knox said that since the Knox County Sheriff’s Office banned in-person visits at all county jail facilities in April 2014, the influx of prison contraband has failed to significantly decrease, while violence within Knox County prisons has actually increased by an average of one assault per 100 inmates.
In lieu of in-person visitation, the Sheriff’s Office has since offered a video-visitation system. Hopeful visitors are given the option to interact with loved ones through a video kiosk system provided on-site, or alternatively pay $5.99 per half hour to remotely video-chat with an inmate.
The county’s present contract with Securus Technologies allows for a 50 percent commission on every video call to go directly to county general revenue. From March 2014, when the video system was installed, to November 2017, Knox County collected $68,777 in video call commissions from individuals utilizing the remote video-call system, despite Securus paying the full cost of installing and operating the system. Before the change in policy, visitors were not charged for face-to-face visits. At the time of the policy change, the Sheriff’s Office cited a desire to decrease the flow of contraband into the prison system as well as a desire to decrease the amount of staff necessary to monitor visitations.
As a candidate in the upcoming election for Knox County Sheriff, Tom Spangler said he’d be open to bringing back in-person visitations should the video-call system fail, though stopped short of saying he’d fully bring it back, saying of in person visits: “all the issues right now, they haven’t been brought out.”
“You’ve got to have a back-up with just about anything. You can’t just have something and not think anything is going to go wrong with it,” Spangler said.
Fellow candidate Lee Tramel could not be reached for comment. The call for Sheriff accountability on the issue was raised by Knoxville NAACP president Jim Butler, saying during the rally that full transparency from candidates will be of prime importance to the African American community heading into November.
“Knoxville branch NAACP is challenging both and any other Knox County Sheriff candidate to stand up now and say where they stand on this issue, so we can know whether or not we want to vote for you,” Butler said.
Former 1st District City Council Candidate Rebecca Parr also addressed the crowd Monday, citing her own personal experience visiting her imprisoned father in her youth. Though she has no personal experience with the video visitation system, Parr said that if she could feel the pain created by a glass divide between her father, she couldn’t imagine the separation families barred from seeing their loved ones in person must feel.
“(The visits) were hard, but guess what? I got to hug him, I got to kiss him, I got to squeeze him,” Parr said. “I can’t imagine how painful it must be, to not be able to at least touch and see somebody.”

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