Pennsylvania Prison Society in Philadelphia. Like other jurisdictions that have implemented virtual visitation, there was some opposition from inmates and their families at first. That subsided when inmates realized the program wasnt designed to limit visitation. It also means the inmates dont have to go through strip searches that are necessary after in-person visitations.

The visitation program, which is funded by a $134,000 federal grant, doesnt eliminate personal visits, but allows inmates and their families who are separated by great distances to see each other via video.

Continued Socialization

One of the benefits of virtual visitation is socialization. This issue is key considering that about 98 percent of those incarcerated are eventually released. Whether its virtual visitation or distance learning, keeping the inmate in touch with the outside world is crucial.

"Every inmate is released from prison," Horn said. "Theyre going to succeed or theyre going to fail."

A national study on recidivism found that two-thirds of ex-inmates were re-arrested within three years. Horn said social skills and the ability to gain employment are keys to an inmates chances of success after release.

Ohio has a job-linkage program where potential employers take advantage of videoconferencing to interview inmates who are on the verge of release. Employers up to 200 miles away are conferenced in to the prison to interview inmates rather then drive to a prison.

Pennsylvania and Ohio are delving into distance-learning programs but say the programs can be costly. "Even though it might save money in the long run, you have to make that initial investment," Wilkinson said.

Horn said jurisdictions would have to pool their resources to make distance learning a reality. "Then you will begin to get the economies of scale that allow you to spend the money that allows interactive learning opportunities." He also said the technology is not as much of a hurdle as the content of the courses. "You dont want to just have a talking head. It has to be visually exciting. The biggest challenge to distance learning in prisons is content development."

Still, Ohio plans to expand its education program to include distance learning. "Lets say we want to expand the number of inmates we want to put in the GED program or a college-level program," Wilkinson said. "We would have a teacher in one location who could be in charge of teaching a particular course. Instead of teaching 20 inmates that might be at that prison in that classroom, we could be teaching 20 times that number with one teacher."

The employment and educational programs have an impact on recidivism, according to Wilkinson. "We know through research that there is a direct relationship between a lack of education and an increased number of people who return to prison," he said.

But the bottom line for using videoconferencing technology, Wilkinson said, is protecting the public. "Its not just recidivism reduction, its public safety because there are fewer people being victimized."

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor