A rash of complaints about the cost of visitations at the McHenry County Jail has prompted the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office to reinstate free on-site video visits, jail officials said.
The video service, provided through the prison technology company IC Solutions, previously had replaced in-person jail visitations. Advocates for the transition to video visitations claimed the service was safer and more convenient than ever.
However, despite the software’s ability to place a jail inmate on a computer monitor even states away, it has been criticized by some as being inconsistent, unreliable and exclusive of people without the means to pay for the service’s mandatory fees.
A sign of the times
Services such as IC Solutions’ make it possible for more people to visit the jail at one time, and it gets around invasive pat-downs and security checks required for “contact visits” between glass, McHenry County Sheriff’s IT Sgt. Mick Nelson said.
The sheriff’s office revealed its plan to reinstate free on-site visits Tuesday. The announcement came within two weeks of a Northwest Herald Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents related to the jail’s partnership with IC Solutions.
Jail officials checked visitation policies at jails in 20 counties throughout the state to determine whether they charged a fee for on-site visits, McHenry County Sheriff’s chief administrative officer David Devane said.
“None of them had that provision,” he said.
Free visits through the jail's video monitors must be scheduled four hours in advance and will be available between 9 and 11 a.m. and noon and
2 p.m. seven days a week, Devane said. Visitors still will be required to pay for remote visitations.
The free services are expected to be reinstated by the the end of the week.
Out with the old
In 2005, the McHenry County Jail became the first in the Chicago area to introduce once-a-week video visitation – a technology that has allowed inmates and visitors to talk through a closed-circuit TV screen and telephone.
The jail has since cycled through technologies and ended in-person visitations in favor of the arguably more convenient digital alternative.
The shift meant that rather than the 50 cents a minute HomeWav charged visitors for sessions lasting a maximum of 30 minutes, participants would pay a flat rate of $12.50 for as many as 25 minutes through IC Solutions, which also provides the facility’s phone services.
The sheriff's office is set to make a
50 percent commission rate from the video service fees, but it won't see any of those returns until the remaining $169,000 for equipment and services is paid off, records show.
Any future commissions on calls paid by debit through inmates’ commissary funds would be used to pay for services such as TV and newspaper access for the inmates.
IC Solutions’ video services require a high-speed internet connection on both ends, and the technology isn’t compatible with Apple products, Nelson said. As of Friday, those who couldn’t use the service remotely had the option of using one of the jail’s five in-house monitors for the same $12.50 rate.
Visitors are paying for a block of time that’s set aside 24 hours in advance, so patrons aren’t reimbursed the difference if they don’t use the entire 25 minutes, Nelson said.
In the event of a technological problem or poor internet connection, inmates are asked to file grievances detailing what went wrong with the call. Jail or IC Solutions staff then investigate those grievances, sometimes through a review of the call footage, and a determination is made on whether to reimburse the user.
Inmates have filed at least nine such grievances since the jail switched to IC Solutions, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The complaints reference canceled or choppy video sessions and often make a plea for free visitations.
One grievance, written by Daniel Turner, described his computer screen during scheduled visitation with his wife as cutting in and out and eventually settling on a “white and gray-checkered screen.”
“This facility’s only means of visitation is faulty,” Turner wrote. “If we are to be forced to pay money to visit our loved ones, the system should be flawless, if not faultless.”
People such as Ben Ruddell, the director of criminal justice policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, argue that tethering visitations to a mandatory fee is risky business.
“The criminal justice system at every turn seeks to extract money from people who come into contact with that system – many of whom don’t have money to spare,” Ruddell said. “Poverty may have something to do with why they find themselves in the situation they are in.”
Some fear IC Solutions' services could become even more costly. Another large prison phone company, Securus Technologies, announced plans in May to acquire IC Solutions. The acquisition has been criticized for creating a duopoly that discourages competition and threatens to drive up fees, Prison Policy Initiative communications strategist Wanda Bertram said in an email.
“We’re fighting that merger right now because if Securus acquires IC Solutions, there will effectively be only two prison phone companies in the market, giving them more freedom to charge whatever rates they want for services like video calling,” Bertram wrote.
IC Solutions did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Former Woodstock resident and current inmate Timothy Smith first was booked into the McHenry County Jail for first-degree murder charges in 2011. In his experience, the video system “breaks down a lot,” he said.
“I tell people if you’ve got $12.50 to spend on a visit, you might as well put it in my commissary so I can eat some food,” he said.
Jurors convicted Smith in 2013, and he was sent to prison before returning only two years later, when the appellate court ordered a retrial of his case.
“Our financial situation is being exploited by this institution because we have a need to see our parents,” Smith said.