Inmates soon may be able to visit with loved ones via online video streaming at the St. Clair County Jail.
Sheriff Rick Watson said the department is exploring the idea as a convenience for inmates' families and as a way to make the prison safer.
"It's a way to cut down on the number of people we move inside the jail," Watson said. "When you're at capacity you know it puts stress on staff. Plus, it's a lot safer to keep prisoners in their cells where they can use this and they can visit with loved ones. And it's good for people coming to jail now because they can do it from home."
The move drew praise from John Maki, executive director with the nonprofit John Howard Association. The association provides oversight of the state's prison system.
"This is exactly what prison and jail administrators need to be thinking about doing," Maki said. "How do I enable more visitation because I know when prisoners visit with loved ones they are less likely to (break the law upon release) and it has a calming effect on the institution, which improves the safety of the jail and staff."
The Illinois Department of Corrections already has video visitation at some prisons through kiosk machines or monitored visits through webcams in an inmate's cell. The state began the program to connect family members from the Chicago area with prisoners downstate, Maki said.
Watson said jail officials have been speaking with different companies about the cost and equipment needed to enable video visitation. To afford the program, inmates may share some of the cost for the visit.
"Our budget is not going to allow too much to be absorbed, so there may be some kind of shared expense," Watson said. "But in the end, it's going to save people money by not having to drive up and wait."
Video visitation is expected to ease the stress for waiting families as well, Watson said.
"A lot of folks that come through here have small kids," Watson said. "Kids are kids, and they don't like sitting up and waiting to visit with Dad or Mom. This makes it much simpler for everybody."
While commending Watson for "creative, cost-effective thinking," Maki criticized legislators for laws that imprison too many nonviolent offenders.
"We have too many people in jails and prisons," Maki said. "A sheriff that has to think about using video for local visits suggests that we're overusing this jail. What this should do is point back to the legislature and public officials who determine the law."
The St. Clair County Jail houses mostly those accused of felony crimes, according to State's Attorney Brendan Kelly. More than 90 percent face felony charges and 86 percent of those are violent offenders, sex offenders, drug dealers or federal felons.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at email@example.com or 618-239-2501.