Lake County jail boosts visits with video conferencing
Beth Coleman smiled as she chatted with her parents on the video conference screen in front of her.
A few kind words from family and seeing a friendly face is far more personal than a simple phone call, she said. It can make all the difference in the world.
Seeing people talking on Skype or other forms of video conferencing isn't out of the ordinary, but the location for this interaction was: It took place while Coleman was an inmate at the Lake County jail.
"It's definitely different, doing it like this," Coleman said. "But this way, I get to see them and talk to them. It's neat that they can do stuff like this."
Coleman, 29, of Zion, was charged with retail theft. She has since been released from the jail after pleading guilty and being sentenced to a year of probation.
During her six-week stay, Coleman was one of the 640 prisoners allowed to use the jail's video conferencing center.
Using the small video screen, Coleman talked to her parents about programs she was participating in while behind bars. Her parents were linked in from the visitors' center down the street.
Authorities said the program recently has been expanded and many people are now able to video chat with loved ones in jail from the comfort of their home.
Lake County jail officials said the aim is to expand visitation by making it more convenient for inmates and their families. Doing so, experts say, can help reduce recidivism and violence among inmates, as well as cut down on opportunities for contraband to be smuggled into the jail.
"Anything that increases access for inmates to the outside world and their immediate family is a win," Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran said. "Generally speaking, being incarcerated leads to despair, and that's not what we want. 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."
The concept generally gets high marks from a prison inmate watchdog group because it allows more interaction between inmates and their families.
"We are supportive of any way a prisoner can have more visitation with a family member," said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois. "However, video visitation should not completely replace physical contact, especially when the prisoner has a family or a child is involved."
Maki also expressed concern that the county charges family members $25.95 to access the system from a home computer or to log in to the system at the jail video center to meet with a loved one more than once a week.
"We, as a whole, are always supportive of any system where a prisoner can receive more visitation," he said. "But if the family is exceedingly poor, forcing them to pay to visit with an incarcerated loved one ... we don't support that."
Lake County jail authorities said there have been 2,000 computer visits in the two months since the program went online in Waukegan. Of those visits, 70 were completed while the visitors used a home computer.
Authorities said all prisoners -- violent and nonviolent alike -- have access to the terminals, but each terminal is monitored and recorded by jail authorities.
"It's taking some time to get people familiar with the new program and work out the bugs," said Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Chief Theodore Uchiek, who helps oversee the jail. "But we are liking the new system. Officers don't have to worry about a variety of issues that live visits have. And it's more convenient for the prisoners and visitors alike."
Uchiek said Curran saw the video conferencing machines in action at the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2007 and worked to bring them to the county.
Securus Technologies Video Visitation machines were brought in and went online in the prisoner pods July 16, he said, shortly after the same program went live in Kankakee County -- the only other county jail in the area where it's available.
The program came at no cost for Lake County as Securus covered the entire $389,000 cost for the machines, including installation, training for officers and wiring, said Chief Jennifer Witherspoon of the Lake County Sheriff's office. Securus receives 75 percent of the fees paid, she added.
The 100 percent Web-based video conferencing system allows prisoners to remotely visit with family and friends for 30-minute intervals between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Uchiek said the hope is video machines will ease long lines during visitation hours while also creating therapeutic interaction between prisoners and their family members.
"Prisoners and their family make an appointment for a machine, then just punch a button on the screen and start talking," he said.
The machines replace having a visitor come to the jail in the morning, wait for a space to open up, then enter the jail for 30 minutes to communicate with the inmate, he said.
The jail is split into 24 pods with four video machines in each pod, Witherspoon said. Another 10 terminals are set up for the public to use at the Lake County Community Based Corrections Center at 15 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. in Waukegan, she said.
There are rules prohibiting provocative clothing, nudity and visitors who appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Violators will have visitation privileges suspended, or they could be permanently barred from the program.
Curran said the response to the new system has been overwhelming from inmates and family members alike. When asked about the fee charged to people who use the system frequently or from home, Curran stressed that the cost is paid by system users and not by taxpayers.