DECATUR — When an offender is sentenced to prison, ties to loved ones, including children left behind with caregivers, can be difficult to maintain.
But technology available in 13 of Illinois' 25 correctional facilities is helping offenders stay in touch with families and friends through email and video connections, including at Decatur Correctional Center, one of two women's prisons in the state. The other women's prison is in Lincoln, which doesn't yet have expanded access to technology. Together the facilities house a total of 2,137 women.
The Decatur Correctional Center on East Mound Road is expanding inmates' ability to communicate through video links with people who are on an approved list of contacts. When installation of wireless technology is complete, the women will be able to conduct video visits in their cells instead of using two kiosks in the facility's visitation center. Visits are monitored and recorded.
Staff has seen positive changes in some women who have been able to see their children for the first time in years, said Steve Spaide, administrative assistant to warden Shelith Hansbro.
"Most are mothers and will go home and continue to be mothers," Spaide said of the 260 women held at the facility.
The video system has helped moms watch their children open gifts and get ready for prom. One inmate said her good-byes to her mother who was in hospice care through the use of the video link. Other mothers helped their sons with homework and checked in with them during military deployments.
Visitor Coordinator Casey Simpson recalled one inmate who became separated from her children because their caregiver shielded them from the fact that their mother was in prison. The inmate's explanation to her child that "Mommy is away at school" continued during the video visits that depicted a woman in a polo shirt with no sign of a prison environment.
"Her whole demeanor changed after she got to see her kids," Simpson said .
And, motherhood is common among female prisoners, according to a 2017 study of Logan Correctional Center's 1,835 inmates by the Women's Justice Initiative. The women were mothers of a total of 3,700 children, the study said.
The cost of the technology is far more affordable than the expensive phone system linking inmates to the outside world. Emails are 30 cents for each message. Video visits are $6.25 for 25 minutes or $13.75 for 55 minutes.
The equipment was donated by Global Tel Link, the firm that has the state's technology contract.
The sense of isolation felt by many offenders also has been reduced through music now available on MP-3 players. About half the Decatur prison population has purchased devices for $93 from the commissary. Up to 500 songs can be downloaded on the devices at a cost $1.80 per song or $32 for 20 selections.
"Music is a big deal for them," Simpson said. "They say it just takes them away" from the stress of their environment.
The availability of new technology also allows inmates to stay connected to their mothers and other family members.
Krista Robson, 22, is on the front end of a 15-year sentence on armed robbery charges.
"I know my mom misses me. She visits me every two to three weeks. This helps me not only to stay in touch with my mom, but other people," said Robson, who is eligible for parole in 2022.
The video link provides Robson with comfort and encouragement.
"It's nice seeing the background of my house and nice to see the home setting I'm going to have again," said Robson, who is working on her associate's degree in prison.
The email and video privileges are available to all inmates except those who are subject to disciplinary action.
So far this year, a total of 3,513 video visits have been conducted at the 13 facilities, according to the IDOC. Since electronic messaging debuted in 2016, almost 600,000 e-mails have been exchanged.
The state is expanding its use of technology and hopes to complete the process at all facilities by the end of summer, said an IDOC spokeswoman.
Decatur's warden has a response for those critical of the state's policy shift to allow inmates greater access to technology.
"This is behavior modification. When inmates look forward to visits, it keeps infractions down and helps everyone have a smoother day," said Hansbro, adding that correctional officers and other staff are among those who benefit from that.
Women and men who are released after years in prison face myriad adjustments, including their lack of knowledge about computers and cellphones, she said.
"Technology is a re-entry tool as well," said Hansbro.
Remote communication often leads to more intimate contact, said Jennifer Vollen Katz, executive director of the Chicago-based John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.
"Studies have shown that when you increase the communication, there's evidence of increasing family engagement and in-person visits," Katz said.
Family visits also are an incentive for inmates to follow prison rules, reducing the chances of disciplinary action, she said.
Men who are preparing to leave the prison system also benefit from access to the technology that will help them get a job and rejoin the ranks of society. The state's re-entry center for men in Kewanee includes training on computers and cellphones.
"We want to start leading with carrots, not sticks," Katz said, "but we don't have many good carrots."
Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_blunny