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For some families, costs put visits with McHenry County inmates out of reach

WOODSTOCK – Kelly Cappello wishes there was a way to see her son face-to-face at the McHenry County Jail. But there isn’t.

For years, the McHenry County Jail has opted out of in-person visits, requiring loved ones such as Cappello to speak with inmates via video visitation software for a fee. Cappello can’t afford to use video chat with her son, but tries to talk to her son once a month on the phone.

“I’m poor,” Cappello said. “They’re price gouging.”

The McHenry County Jail began experimenting with once-a-week video visitation in 2005, making the county the first in the Chicago area to use the technology. Visitors and inmates would be nearly a city block away from each other and spoke through a closed-circuit TV screen and telephone. The jail no longer offers face-to-face visits.

In 2014, the jail began using HomeWav, a video visitation system that allows inmates to talk with anyone with HomeWav software installed on their computers. Inmates or their families paid a fee to use the system. HomeWav cost 50 cents a minute with a maximum visit of 30 minutes. 

In May, the jail switched to ICSolutions, another visitation contractor that came with new fees: $12.50 a call with a maximum time limit of 25 minutes a visit.

That’s more than Cappello can afford more than once a month. She drives a bus for a living and lives in a mobile home in Walworth County, Wisconsin.

Her 32-year-old son, Christopher Cappello, has been in and out of jail over the past 16 years. He landed in jail earlier this month after police found cocaine, pills and 88 bags of heroin in his car, according to the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office.

“I have been there on visits,” Kelly Cappello said. “[Christopher] was in there when we were all crammed into an elevator and brought to the second floor.”

Using ICSolutions, a family member must register an account and feed money into it. Family members then can log into an app on their computer or phone and schedule a visit with any inmate within the facility. Such a visit involves a video kiosk in a special area adjacent to the visitors’ waiting room at the jail.

The only way to have an “in-person” visit is through a court order, said Tim Creighton, a community relations specialist in the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office. 

Some inmate advocates worry video-only visitation could be detrimental to a prisoner’s development in the outside world.

“People should have in-person visits with family,” said Jenny Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, an organization focused on prison reform. “It’s critical to giving the person support when they leave prison. It’s bad for the long term.”

If families can’t afford to talk with their loved ones in jail, inmates won’t be able to arrange a place to land on the outside. 

“We’re causing stress for the family,” Vollen-Katz said. “Video visitation has a place when it is an option. It should be an alternative when that is the only way. That’s certainly better than not. That should never take the place of an in-person visit.”

Creighton said video visitation is better for families.

“It allows for family and friends from all over the country to visit with their loved ones,” Creighton said. “We only permit two visitors at a time on-site, but off-site, the entire family can be present via video link, and the inmate can also video chat with everyone during holidays and gatherings that otherwise would not be possible with on-site visits.”

Kelly Cappello said the video visitation is nothing but a money grab.

“I wish I would’ve thought about it first,” she said.

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