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posted: 10/23/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: The benefits of video visits for jail inmates

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  • A Lake County jail inmate in Waukegan uses Skype to speak with her parents in Zion recently.

    A Lake County jail inmate in Waukegan uses Skype to speak with her parents in Zion recently.
    Daily Herald Photo / George LeClaire gleclaire@dai

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

"Don't do the crime if you can't do the time" was TV cop Tony Baretta's chilling warning in the 1970s of the penalty for breaking the law. Incarceration, whether it's a relatively short stay in the county jail or something far more permanent in a state prison, is a steep price to pay.

And it is expected to be. There is that little matter of "the crime," after all. But "doing the time" can't mean simply stowing a person away, separated from all outside contact for months or years at a time, and it ought also have some effect that will discourage a person from doing the crime again.

That's why a new video visitation program recently launched by Lake County jail officials offers such promise. For many inmates, periodic visits from family are the support they need most in trying to turn around their lives, and experts contend such visits can help reduce recidivism and violence.

"Anything that increases access for inmates to the outside world and their immediate family is a win," Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran told the Daily Herald's Lee Filas. "Generally speaking, being incarcerated leads to despair ... Most of the prisoners we see will be released at some point, and we want them to believe in redemption and be hopeful. Family can do that better than anyone."

It's a philosophy embraced by most modern penal institutions, and other collar counties ought to be watching to see what benefits they may be able to derive from Lake County's experiment.

Curran, who has been an advocate for providing rehabilitative programming for inmates, says the expanded visitation enabled through video technology increases the potential for benefits, both in terms of inmate behavior during incarceration and an ex-inmate's actions afterward.

The 100 percent Web-based video conferencing system allows inmates to remotely visit with family for 30-minute intervals. The hookups can be from a separate facility at the jail complex in Waukegan or from home or elsewhere.

Appointments are needed, visitations are monitored and rules are in place to assure proper behavior. The $389,000 system was provided at no cost to Lake County by Securus Technologies Video Visitation, which receives a portion of the $25.95 fee paid for hookups from home or when a family member wants more than one visit a week.

While it's not surprising the John Howard Association prison watchdog group favors the video visitation concept, Lake County jail officials also say they like what they have seen so far. Yes, it is more convenient for inmates and families alike. But opportunities for smuggling contraband into the jail and other potential problems associated with face-to-face visits also are diminished.

Video visitations won't entirely replace in-person visits, of course. But they do offer options for expanding them -- and in ways that aren't simply a perk for inmates but actually a way to strengthen family ties that could help turn around a life.

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