Video visits for Illinois inmates and families

Summary: Why didn’t someone think of this earlier?

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) is testing video visiting to make it easier for inmates to remain in touch with family and friends, a critical factor in an ex- offender’s return to society.

Three computers equipped with video cameras have been installed at the Westside Adult Transition Center in Chicago. They allow visitors to meet with inmates at Dwight and Menard correctional centers and Tamms supermax prison.

Eventually IDOC hopes to make video visits available around the state. This would greatly improve opportunities for inmates to stay in touch with family.

Although most inmates held by IDOC are from the Chicago area, many of the state’s prisons are located in remote rural areas. Menard, for example, is located 376 miles south and west of Chicago. It can take six hours or more to drive there.

Besides the time and effort involved, physical visits can be costly for low-income family members. There is also the uncertainty of actually being able to visit an inmate. Visits are curtailed or prohibited when a prison is on lockdown.

The video visits at Westside ATC are still in the experimental stage. But IDOC staff noted that the technology is simple and inexpensive.

“I would like to see (video visiting) in all the ATCs,” said Darryl Coleman, Regional Parole Supervisor. On a recent visit by John Howard Association staff, two of the video cameras were in use.Video Visits for Illinois Inmates And Families Page 2 of 3

Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Broadview) was chatting with an obviously pleased Menard inmate. Yarbrough has long been interested in correctional issues.
“I think his spirits were lifted,” Yarbrough said. She looked pleased as well.

Yarbrough said video visiting will have to be revenue neutral, as the state’s financial crisis prohibits all but the most vital expenditures. Managers at IDOC are considering out-sourcing the video visits to minimize costs. Users might be asked to pay a small fee in exchange for an hour with an inmate.

Jesse Montgomery Jr., Chief of Parole, said many details need to be worked out.
He said he expects a full video visiting program to be in place within six months to a year.

Managers at IDOC like the idea of video visiting because it is a privilege, not a right. Inmates are less likely to violate prison rules if they know it will mean the loss of video visitation.

Montgomery and others noted that the longer an inmate is in prison, the less likely he or she is to receive visitors. Isolation impedes a successful return to society.

Inmates are monitored while using the video camera. Of course, security is enhanced compared to a physical visit as there is no possibility of someone slipping contraband to an inmate.

Managers at IDOC see other possibilities for the video visiting project. For example, the computers could be used to send e-mail to inmates, avoiding the lengthy delays in delivery of mail to prisons.

Observation: Video visitation is not a substitute for a physical visit. But it is far superior to no visit at all. The more an inmate remains integrated socially, the more likely he is to return to society successfully.

Recommendation: Roll out video visitation as soon as practicable at all state prisons. Management of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice should also consider video visitation so that youth can remain connected to their families.

This report was written by Robert Manor, Prison & Jail Monitor for the John Howard Association. He may be reached at (312)
503-6302 or rmanor@thejha.org.

Since 1901, JHA has provided public oversight of Illinois’ juvenile and adult correctional facilities. Every year, JHA staff and trained volunteers inspect prisons, jails and detention centers throughout the state. Based on these inspections, JHA regularly issues reports instrumental in improving prison conditions.