It is hard to believe, but the people in our country with the most exposure to the high-tech world of telecommunications may be those living in our federal, state and local correctional facilities.

This summer, Sprint, Kinko's and the state of Missouri teamed up to provide videoconferencing capabilities to three state correctional facilities on a trial basis. Inmates at Missouri's Farmington, Jefferson City and Western Missouri correctional centers can now have virtual visitors from 155 Kinko's locations around the world. This new service allows family, friends and attorneys to "visit" inmates without making the trip to the actual facility. To use the system, visitors go to their local Kinko's and make an appointment to conference with the inmate of their choice. Sprint and Kinko's have a long history of providing similar services to the business community.

While the trial is still in its infancy, the technology has tremendous potential. With videoconferencing, attorneys can save the driving time required to visit their clients in rural prisons. Since many of these attorneys are court-appointed, this results in cost savings for the taxpayer and greater efficiency for the system. Another benefit goes to any out-of-state relatives an inmate may have. Videoconferencing allows these relatives to visit without buying a plane ticket or spending money on hotels. This increased access to visitors could make it easier for states to house their inmates in other states.

Videoconferencing also has a security feature. Convicted felons and those caught attempting to pass contraband to prisoners are not allowed to visit state prisoners. With videoconferencing, the visitor does not need to physically enter the prison, and, as a result, even those banned from the facility can communicate with an inmate. For additional security, each conversation is monitored and prison officials have the right to pull the plug should the need arise.

Is It Being Used?

To date only a handful of families have taken advantage of the new technology. However, it is too early in the trial, and many families are unaware that the option exists. Sprint, Kinko's and corrections officials are just beginning to publicize the project. They are concentrating their advertising on the families of prisoners and local attorney groups.

Prison officials speculate that another factor hindering the system's use is prisoner resistance. Many inmates may be reluctant to tell their families about the videoconferencing system because they fear their families will choose to "phone-in" their visits instead of coming in person.

Finally, the largest constraint on the system may be price. Today, it costs $135 per hour to videoconference with an inmate. However, it is possible to purchase the videoconferencing in 15-minute increments, but even that is more money than many families are able to pay. In fact, when Missouri still housed large numbers of prisoners out of state, Prison Fellowship attempted to organize a bus trip for family members to visit their loved ones in Texas and found that many simply could not afford the trip.

Video Arraignment

Jackson County District Defender Joel Elmer is a big supporter of videoconferencing. He supervises 29 attorneys in his Kansas City office and recently participated in a Southwestern Bell trial that enabled his public defenders to use videoconferencing to meet with their clients in the Jackson County jail. He found the technology useful.

However, he is quick to point out that he probably would not use videoconferencing to discuss confidential matters like trial strategies or a client's version of the facts. According to Elmer, "You would use videoconferencing to touch base with the client or talk about a pleading or a continuance."

He also insists that videoconferencing is not a replacement for face-to-face meetings, but that the medium is appropriate for many types of client contact and more personal than a phone conversation.

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer