As with every organization, the Lake County Jail has had to adjust to the new realities of operating during a pandemic. Since March of 2020, jail staff have made significant changes to prevent contact and infections among incarcerated individuals.
“After they first arrive, all inmates are quarantined for seven days, or fourteen if they are covid positive,” says Cynthia Brooks, Captain in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. As a result of the quarantine requirement, inmates must remain segmented into housing groups, called ranges, at all times. This makes it impossible to provide programs for the general population as before. Among the programs affected are the Sunday morning church services provided by Lake County Jail Ministry volunteers.
Unfortunately, according to Captain Brooks, the moratorium on all programming will continue to remain in place for the foreseeable future. “We truly miss the volunteer programs,” says Brooks, who has worked for the Lake County Sheriff’s office since 1984, and was promoted to Deputy Captain in 2019. “It just isn’t possible to keep the inmates and staff safe without the quarantine restriction.”
Where one door closed, other doors have opened at the Lake County Jail over the past year. “We now have video visitation,” says Captain Brooks. This is in addition to the in-person visitation that was reinstated last year. Video visitation is provided under contract by GTL. Inmates simply enter a code at a video kiosk to communicate with loved ones. The service is paid for through an account set up by an inmate’s family.
Another new system recently installed at the jail employs smart tablets, which are are shared by the inmates. The service, provided by a company called Smart Communications, includes an email-like messaging system inmates can use to communicate with friends and family. For a fee, inmates can also use the tablets to access entertainment (music and movies), educational programs, books, bibles, and a law library. There is also a way to make a request to medical personnel or jail administration. “Inmates can even contact me with a grievance or request,” says Captain Brooks. “The system will soon offer GED courses as well.”
An added benefit of the new Smart Communications system is the efficient monitoring of postal mail communications. All mail sent to jail inmates is routed to a central facility where it is scanned and checked for contraband. Inmates then receive their mail on the tablet provided by the jail. The MailGuard system alerts jail staff to inmate concerns by flagging key words, such as suicide, so that inmates can be helped.
The most pressing issue for the Lake County Jail for the past several years has been space, which has been made all the more critical by the need to quarantine. “We have an average total capacity of around 360 inmates,” says Captain Brooks. Built in 1989, the jail was designed to house twelve inmates in each range. “But we are having to double bunk some areas with sixteen to eighteen inmates,” says Captain Brooks. Add to this a staffing shortage, which is the result of recent staff retirements and normal turnover.
On the wish list for Lake County Jail Administration is a new jail facility, which would be built to accommodate current and future needs. “We are asking our staff for input and hoping there will be funding for a new facility in the near future,” says Captain Brooks.