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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Advocates Push For Free Video Calls In McLean County Jail During COVID-19

vehicle driving past McLean County Jail
Eric Stock
Demonstrators pushing for free video conferencing for inmates staged a car caravan around the jail on Friday.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said Friday he has strengthened a lockdown at the county jail following a public demonstration that he said has made the facility less safe for inmates.
“It’s unfortunate when outside groups affect our operations, but we’ve got to look out for the safety and security of our inmates and staff,” Sandage said.

The sheriff said inmates became “riled up” following a car caravan that drove around the jail several times Friday morning to call for the county to waive the cost of video conferencing for inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Representatives of Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal and Bloomington-Normal Democratic Socialists of America coordinated the protest.

Sandage said the demonstration increased tensions between inmates and jail staff, adding the jail is temporarily having all inmates eat their meals in their cells and is limiting the number of inmates who can be out of their cells at any one time.

The advocacy groups have previously called on Sandage to greatly reduce the county jail population during the pandemic.

Black Lives Matter organizer Olivia Butts said the video cost of $7.50 per 30 minutes is extraordinary and causes increased hardship for families who have no other way to see their loved one since the jail has banned all visitors.

“That’s crazy, especially when we think about what’s going on right now,” Butts said. “People don’t have their jobs, people aren’t able to pick up any extra work, so to be asked to pay more to talk to a loved one, to me is unjust.”

Telephone calls cost $.25 per minute.

Black Lives Matter has been raising money on GoFundMe to cover the cost of video conferencing. The group has donated $1,900 to more than 40 people who have incarcerated family members.

Butts said the pandemic has made personal connections even more critical for inmates who worry about their risk of catching the coronavirus while in custody.

“We’ve seen people dying across the country at jails and prisons, so not only do they have to think about connecting with their loved ones, but this is a time where they are nervous about their loved ones even being at the jail,” Butts said.

The county contracted with San Antonio-based IC Solutions in July 2018 to provide the jail’s videoconferencing system. The county gets a 72% commission on all calls. The contract guarantees the county receives a guaranteed minimum of $105,630 annually if it maintains an average jail population of 175.

Sandage said revenue from the calls goes into the county’s general fund. He did not comment on the contract, adding the County Board approved the agreement.

Sandage said the jail is down to about 140 inmates because the facility has been processing more minor offenses on the streets and judges have suspended weekend and work release sentences.

The advocacy groups previously called for all inmates who are being held on cash bail to be released from custody. Sandage has said that’s beyond his legal authority as sheriff and added that emptying the jail would create its own public health hazard.

Sandage banned all jail visitors March 12 and placed the jail on 23-hour lockdown in April. He said the sheriff’s office has maintained rigorous health screening and sanitation standards to keep inmates and staff safe. He said no staff or inmates have displayed COVID-19 symptoms.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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