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Tussle develops over inmates' use of tablets at McLean County Jail

Democrats on the McLean County Board are criticizing Sheriff Jon Sandage over removal of tablets from inmate use pending renegotiation of a contract on commissions the county receives when they are in use.

Democrats on the McLean County Board are crying foul by Sheriff Jon Sandage over the removal of tablets that inmates can use to make phone calls, emails, and texts, and access educational content.

On Thursday, the board voted 12-6 to table a contract with IC solutions on revenue from the tablets until it can be renegotiated.

“We were very disheartened and shocked today to find out that McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage has taken away these tablets from the inmates,” the nine Democratic county board members said in a statement released Friday evening. “We were not given an adequate explanation as to why he did this, since nothing really has changed in the past 24 hours, except for the contract being tabled for renegotiation."

Those Democrats are: Hannah Beer, Sharon Chung, Lea Cline, Elizabeth Johnston, Val Laymon, Jim Rogal, Shayna Watchinski, Benjamin Webb, and Laurie Wollrab.

Sandage, a Republican, noted the proposed contract had passed the board's executive committee on the way to the full board. He said jail staff and IC Solutions had worked hard to get the tablets up and running over a period of years.

“It was our understanding that the agreement was made on the rate and all that was left was to have the contract signed. I did not think it would be an issue,” said Sandage.

When the board tabled the contract, Sandage said he has no assurance a new agreement will be reached.

“I want the inmates to have the tablets more than anything because it's not only a benefit to them. It's a benefit to our staff. However, I am not going to work under a contract that's not going to get approved,” he said.

Both the Democrats and Sandage said the other side is playing politics.

“We can only surmise that he is doing this as retaliation for our vote and that he is playing a political game with the inmates and their hardworking families and loved ones as pawns,” wrote the Democrats.

“There's nothing political to it. I've wanted the inmates to have it, that's why we got them,” said Sandage.

The Democratic county board members said the county makes a 72% commission on inmate phone and video conferencing calls and the county does not need an extra 25% in commission from tablet use and fees.

Sandage said emails and texts made on the tablets would be less expensive under the contract than writing letters or using a phone to make calls.

“They think the inmates should have it for free. And that's not up to me, that's up to the county board. But you know what? It's a luxury. Everybody pays for luxuries,” said Sandage.

“The sheriff, by taking away these tablets, which are a vital lifeline to the outside world, has purposely cut off the inmates from their loved ones, especially during this difficult time,” the Democrats wrote.

Sandage rejects the allegation he is trying to marginalize inmates. “We're trying to help everybody,” he said. “Nobody has to use them, and we have a lot of free content that's going to be available on them.”

The Democratic board members said they had made clear during the full board meeting on Thursday that they did not want the tablets taken away during the contract renegotiation.

“That's not up to the Democrats. That's not up to the Republicans. That's up to me that has operational control of the jail,” said Sandage.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.