In his experience, videoconferencing allowed for greater access to his clients. If he wants to speak to several clients in the Jackson County jail, it may take two to three hours even if the conversations are 10 minutes or less. With the videoconferencing system, he could call ahead and the jail would line up his clients, saving him hours of time. In the Jackson County trial, the system was used primarily for personal contacts. However, a few miles down the road, court officials are using videoconferencing in an entirely different way.

In Columbia, Mo., nonviolent offenders are arraigned via videoconference each weekday at 1:30 p.m. This eliminates the need to transport prisoners the 26 miles for the routine arraignment process. Three ISDN lines connect the jail's chapel and the Boone County Courthouse. On the jail's end, there is a 27-inch television screen housed in a secure metal cabinet. The screen is divided into four parts and the defendant can simultaneously view the judge, prosecutor and their attorney. In the past, the prisoners could also see themselves, but this proved too distracting for the defendants, and this section was covered up. In the courthouse, the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney see the client on 13-inch monitors. There is also a 27-inch monitor for public viewing.

District Defender Robert Fleming is generally pleased with the system. After all, it is 13 miles from his office to the county jail and often he is able to cross the street and use the courthouse's system instead of making the drive to talk to his clients. However, he mentioned that the lack of privacy in the system limits the types of discussions and wishes that they could go beyond using the system simply for arraignments. He also hopes that the system expands to enable him to talk to his clients without leaving his office.

Telemedicine

Many have already learned the value of providing inmates with specialty medical care through videoconferencing. Texas has provided telemedicine to inmates in its correctional facilities since 1992. By law, prisoners have guaranteed access to healthcare, and since the Lone Star state has the nation's largest prison population, this can get pretty pricey. The state must provide primary care to an inmate at their facility as well as access to specialty services consistent with community standards. However, since most state prisons are located in rural areas, access to medical specialists can be a problem. In Texas, this can mean an 850 mile trip for a visit to a single specialist. This poses a huge public safety risk because the least secure part of the incarceration process is the transportation. Telemedicine helps reduce this risk.

The system allows the state's inmates access to some of the best medical specialists in the country. Surgical experts, as well as those specializing in internal medicine, orthopedics and many other fields can consult with prison doctors and recommend the most effective treatment plan.

Telemedicine is a powerful cost saving tool and has several other benefits. It reduces the need for inmate transportation to offsite medical facilities and the cost associated with transporting and safeguarding a prisoner en route. It also reduces the need for transient cells and the overhead associated with the facilities. Finally, it reduces grievances associated with transportation and medical access.

As prison populations continue to swell and the demand for prisoner services increases, videoconferencing will continue to play a vital role in our nation's correctional facilities. Someday all our homes will be equipped with state-of-the-art telecommunication equipment. Until then, our nation's prisons will continue to lead the way in the videoconferencing arena.

James Wolf is an assistant professor of Computer Information

Systems at Cedarville College (Cedarville, Ohio) and has a master's degree in Management Information Systems from George Washington University. In his spare time, he writes about technology, teaches at University of Phoenix Online, and spends a lot of time on the Internet.

January Table of Contents

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer