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.
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.
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.
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.
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