Technology has made getting in touch with inmates a lot more convenient at Niagara County Jail in Lockport, N.Y.

Web-based video-conferencing units have been installed in the jail’s housing areas that allow probation officers, mental health staff and attorneys to schedule online meetings with prisoners. Online since last December, the new Internet-based system has also cut down the amount of travel to the facility.

The online conferencing system is a pilot project officials hope will eventually expand to visits between inmates and their family members, along with use by private attorneys to meet with their incarcerated clients.

This isn’t the first time that Niagara County Jail has experimented with video-conferencing technology. Several years ago, New York passed legislation that allowed inmates to remotely attend court proceedings. According to Administrative Capt. Daniel Engert of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, that program never got off the ground, chiefly because attorneys and court personnel were somewhat reluctant to use the technology.

He expects a different result this time, however, particularly since the system would be primarily used for inmate communication, not official courtroom appearances.

“Many of our inmates are being held for federal court in Buffalo, so their attorneys are located 40 minutes away,” Engert said. “This allows them to more effectively represent them, without incurring additional foot traffic here.”

The reduction of visitors to the jail is one of the major benefits Engert sees in the Web conferencing technology. He explained that when an inmate gets visitors, officers need to be assigned to check people in and then transport them to different areas of the facility, which creates logistical issues.

The technology should help free-up personnel to concentrate on other duties rather than shepherd visitors to and from various locations in the jail.

Security Concerns?

The video conferencing takes place through a secure server on the Internet. People wanting to connect with the inmate must be approved by Engert, who assigns them a user name and password and goes through a process to verify their credentials.

People who are approved are given a Web address, and as long as they have a computer, Internet connection and Web camera, they can conference with the inmate from anywhere.

If the technology is eventually approved for use by inmate friends and family, doesn’t it have the potential to be abused? For example, what if a nonapproved person — potentially an at-large criminal — is given the logon information and uses the Web chat session to further a crime?

The possibility wasn’t a major concern for Engert. He explained that an inmate already has the ability to communicate with the outside world on the phone. So if for some reason corrections officials felt someone was abusing the system, they could monitor and record the session just as they would a phone call.

He added, however, that the priority is to make sure Web-based video conferencing is running well with professional entities first, so it’ll likely be at least a year or so before the system is opened up to outside parties.

“The reality of it is, we’re still talking about a remote connection,” Engert said. “I’d much rather deal with that problem then deal with the physical visitation issue [of passing contraband] we have to face in New York.”

Next Steps

The evaluation of the system should be wrapped up by the end of March. At that point, Engert said a decision will be made to either purchase the equipment — Primonics TeleCorrections interactive touchscreen technology — from reseller Prometheus Technologies or seek out a different video-conferencing provider.

The technology isn’t a computer with a webcam. Built specifically for corrections use, the Web conferencing units cost approximately $3,000 each. Six of the units are currently in operation at the jail at no cost to taxpayers during the pilot project. If purchased, the facility would also need to sign a maintenance contract for the technology and officials would be assigned roughly 10 to 15 free user licenses. Additional licenses could be purchased at a rate of $325 to $375 annually.

So how will the system be paid for? Engert said the goal is to not use taxpayer funding and a couple of different options are on the table for alternative funding approaches. One of the options is charging for extra user licenses. If Web conferencing is made available so that inmates could remotely visit their loved ones or private legal counsel, the jail could charge for use of the system in those situations.

In addition, Engert also hopes to access a special fund that is based off of sales in the inmates’ commissary. He said that fund can only be tapped to fund programs or purchases that benefit inmates, so Engert plans to make the case that the technology does that and by getting the Web conferencing system, the jail is going above and beyond its requirements regarding inmate communication.

Overall, Engert said he’s pleased with how the Web conferencing units have been working and the potential the technology has to improve communication and help correctional facilities save money and operate more efficiently.

“The hope is as more components of the criminal justice system become more comfortable with the technology … we can find other opportunities to reduce costs for personnel [that] have to deal with all the issues that go along with taking inmates back and forth to court,” Engert said.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.