Video visitation will cost St. Clair County Jail inmates $20 or $40

News-DemocratAugust 3, 2013 

AP GRAPHIC

A nonprofit group believes video visitations to be offered at the St. Clair County Jail should be provided at-cost for inmates, but the St. Clair County sheriff says the cost to inmates ensures the best deal for taxpayers.

At issue is a plan for the jail to begin providing the service to inmates this fall at a cost of $20 per 20-minute session or $40 per 40-minute session.

Inmates will pay Securus Technologies Inc., based in Dallas, which is providing and maintaining about $332,000 in necessary equipment.

St. Clair County Jail can receive 20 percent commission on the service in the first two years of operations as long as the jail hosts at least 729 video visitations in a month.

The jail averaged 472 inmates per day in July. After two years, the jail will receive the commission without having to meet the benchmark.

The possibility of the jail receiving a profit from the service raises the bar for more accountability to ensure inmates are not exploited while serving their sentence, according to John Howard Association Executive Director John Maki. The association provides oversight of prisons and jails throughout Illinois.

"If it's going to cost money to taxpayers, the county must make sure they receive the best deal they can. Although the sheriff shouldn't be making a profit on this," Maki said. "Not only is this in the detainees' interest, but the humane treatment of people who are serving very short sentences for convictions is in the public's interest. All the research shows contact with family and friends during incarceration lowers the chance for recidivism when prisoners get out."

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said the video visitation program was not profit-driven.

"It'll be a long time before the county gets any kind of commission. It will not be measured in days but measured in years basically," Watson said. "It may be 10 years before we get any money out of it. What we're looking at is cutting down on cost and cutting down on the movement of inmates, which improves safety and security. Even if we don't get any money out of it, it will still make us more effective and efficient."

In comparison, the Illinois Department of Corrections provided video visitations to the state's prisons at a cost of $50 per session during a pilot program last year. The department will soon begin a second initiative to provide video visitation at a much lower cost, according to department spokesman Tom Shaer.

Shaer added the cost of visiting inmates through online services is cheaper than families traveling to visit inmates, especially those incarcerated downstate. State prisons had more than 1,700 video visitations in 2012.

"We have not determined the pricing at this point but, again, we anticipate much less than $50 per visit," Shaer said. "We have also not finalized arrangements with the service providers but any funds generated will be used for much-needed counselor positions and to support video visitation for DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) wards of the state who have incarcerated parents at no cost to DCFS or the courts."

Maki said he understands the issues of overcrowding and budget constraints at jails and prisons, however, the service should be provided at a cost only covering the cost of operating the equipment.

"The motive for profit should not be part of the justice system," Maki said. "This kind of thing doesn't help the local and state justice system. Every local law enforcement official has this amazing responsibility to protect people and the Constitution."

The county jail's contract with Securus is through 2018. Representatives with Securus could not be reached for comment.

Watson said nobody will twist inmates arms to use the service but it will provide a convenient way for inmates to stay in touch with family and their attorneys.

"If we can bring in video conferencing, it's a win-win for everybody," Watson said. "People always talk about exploitation of inmates, what about the exploitation of taxpayers? When does it end? When does somebody stand up for taxpayers and say when is somebody going to do something effective and efficient for us?"

The state's plan for providing video visitation to inmates is not driven by profit, Shaer said. Rather, the program is intended to make visits cheaper and more convenient for families and prisons safer by reducing contraband given to inmates.

"The time and expense of IDOC working on these two phases of video visitation will never, ever be recovered," Shaer said. "Drive for profit? No. It is a drive for better visitation service for families and inmates ...."

Privatization of inmate services

Maki said the issue of video visitation for inmates is part an overarching debate of private companies providing services at jails and prisons.

"Definitely throughout the country privatization of prisons is a really hot topic. In Illinois, there is a moratorium on privatizing prisons, but at the same time a lot of vital services are privately run," Maki said. "I think whether you are for or against privatization we have to make sure at the end of the day it serves taxpayers interest and the interest of the justice system. When you inject profit into it, there is a stronger need for accountability. Profit can diverge from the interest of justice."

Watson said the jail is not trying to violate inmates' rights and the new technology is a more efficient way of providing the same service of family visits.

"Securus is taking the risk. We have no outlay of money or risk to pay them back for this equipment," Watson said. "We do benefit from day one by having this equipment. We're trying to do the right thing here and look out for the taxpayers. That was always my motto when I was chief of police in Cahokia: Are the taxpayers getting the best bang for their buck?"

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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