Virtual visitation for inmates in the works


Chynna Miller

Coles County Sheriff Lieutenant and jail administrator Lisa Tills demonstrates how the virtual visitation room is used Friday in the Coles County Sheriff’s Office.

Although the Coles County Courthouse and jails have many historic elements, new technology is being implemented to allow inmates to view their court proceedings and see visitors without leaving jail.

Sheriff James Rankin said a new virtual court system is in the works in which a room will be set up for the inmate to view a video screen of the court from inside the jail.

Normally, inmates are escorted from jail to court by at least two police officers through an underground tunnel that was built in 1958.

“The attorney will sit there with their client, and the judge will be up at the courthouse,” Rankin said. “The only time they’ll leave is for a jury trial, when they have to be taken to the courthouse.”

Lt. Lisa Tillis, a jail administrator, said people have been working on the virtual court system and virtual visitation for years now.

“Most law enforcement agencies are coming to this kind of system,” she said.

Tillis said most of the past week was spent installing equipment for the virtual visitation, and it would start in the next couple of weeks.

“This will make for minimal inmate movement, and make everything much easier,” Tillis said.

The way visitation works now, the officers have to move inmates to an area where they and their visitors are on separate sides of glass and talk through phones. Visitors are only allowed to do this two days a week.

With virtual visitation, the inmates would not leave their cell, visits would be scheduled in advance, and they would be able to have visits several days a week.

It would be an automated system, where the visitor’s face would pop up on a screen so the inmates could see the person who is visiting.

After a 20-minute visit, the screen would shut down so the inmates cannot see their visitor anymore.

“With current visitation, people have to work, and they can’t see the person they care about,” Tillis said. “Virtual visitation will open it up, and people will have more options.”

Tillis said it is always much safer when officers do not have to take inmates out of the building.

“It is much better from a security standpoint,” Tillis said.

Not having to take inmates out of the building would make for less of a risk for public officers, as well as less chances for potential escape attempts. It would also cut down on the chance of inmates seeing people they do not get along with, and people they had committed a crime with.

“This way there’s no friction created from people crossing paths,” Tillis said. “It would be safer for the inmates, safer for the public.”

Tillis said this safety is important, especially since it is not just violent offenders that pose a threat.

“A lot of officers have been killed when people have been desperate to get out,” Tillis said, giving the example of an officer who was killed by an inmate who had been held on a traffic citation.

She said a lot of misunderstandings have occurred between officers and the public, because the public feels like the officers treat them all like criminals.

“We treat them like criminals not because they are a criminal, but because you can’t tell,” Tillis said. “It’s not stamped on their forehead. When they put on their clothes, they look like you or I.”

She said officers cannot always tell good people from bad, and this is the reason they treat people in a manner that seems brisk or insensitive.

“We function in a world most of the world doesn’t see,” Tillis said. “If we do a our job well, you don’t see that part of the world. You can’t make any assumptions.”

Though some offenders are unruly on their way to court, the officers know how to handle them without incident.

“We have very professional officers who conduct themselves very well,” Rankin said.

While a few escape attempts have occurred, none have ever been inside the tunnel or been successful.

“We have had inmates fashion keys out of staples, toothbrushes,” Tillis said. “We deal with people who are very creative, very intelligent.”

Rankin said tens of thousands of inmates have used the underground tunnel since it was built.

The tunnel is made out of brick and mortar, with some sections being recreated with concrete.

On any given day, the tunnel may be used to transport three to forty people to court.

At least two officers need to transport the offender, and they are belly belted and cuffed.

“They are searched when they get there, searched when they get out,” Rankin said.

Everyone who is going to court uses the courthouse tunnel, unless they have a physical difficulty. If the offender has physical difficulties, the squad car is used to take them to court.

Tillis said the temperature of the tunnel stays cool, and although it is not as cold as it is outside, it is usually wet.

The tunnel goes from the sheriff’s department through to the courthouse, and is about a block and a half to two blocks long.

“The officers transporting the offenders get a lot of exercise going back and forth,” Tillis said.


Cassie Buchman can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].