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Michigan Expands Video Conferencing in Prisons

Video conferencing allows Michigan prisoners to attend hearings remotely. State court system to come onboard next.

Spread across 58,110 square miles, Michigan’s state correctional facilities didn’t provide easy access for parole board members to meet with prisoners for court hearings. And with public safety jeopardized each time a prisoner is transported to a court hearing, it only made sense for state officials to find a safer and more efficient way to conduct hearings. Officials found a solution in video-conferencing technology that connects to all state correctional facilities — and a growing number of courts.

In 1996, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) began implementing telemedicine technology in some of its 34 correctional facilities that house and provide care for more than 45,000 prisoners. Since then, the project has grown to include video conferencing at each correctional facility to enable parole board hearings and other meetings to occur remotely. Another arm of the project seeks to connect courts statewide to the system.

At a time when all states are reeling from the sluggish economy, officials nationwide are enlisting projects that streamline standard tasks and promise to provide savings — just as the MDOC’s video-conferencing project has done.

“We started with telemedicine, and then the parole board started doing video conferencing for their hearings so the parole board members wouldn’t have to drive to and from correctional facilities,” said Lynette Holloway, a video-conferencing specialist in MDOC’s Bureau of Fiscal Management. “So it’s just been an evolution of sorts since that time, and the court project has been going on for a couple of years now.”

Remote Hearings

In 1996, Michigan spent an estimated $10 million to transport prisoners. But after seeing the telemedicine project’s benefits and hoping to further reduce transportation costs, MDOC sought to electronically connect its inmates with other functions, such as using video conferencing for parole hearings.

Each correctional facility has at least two rooms that have a TV monitor and video equipment, allowing participants to remotely conduct parole hearings and other meetings. Before the Parole and Commutation Board began using the system in 2007, board members drove as far as 560 miles to the facilities across the state to attend parole hearings. Now the board members don’t have to leave their office — they use their PCs to connect to the hearings.

Holloway said that now, all parole board hearings are conducted through video conferencing compared with 13,000 in 2007.  The number rose to 22,000 in 2009 because five more board members were added.

Outfitting the correctional facilities’ video rooms cost between $6,000 and $8,000, according to Holloway. MDOC has deployed 144 systems from Polycom, which include video-conferencing software for PCs and telepresence systems that transmit high-definition video and audio.

The return on investment for the facilities that conduct parole board hearings is two years— a calculation based on the number of cases the board can hear, how quickly the members vote on cases and how this results in prisoners staying fewer days in a correctional facility. “That’s above and beyond the direct cost that we would incur from the Parole Board driving up and down the road,” Holloway said.

The video-conferencing technology also was installed in the parole offices in each of Michigan’s 83 counties. If a parolee is being tried for a violation, the parole officer can connect to the hearing from his or her office. Holloway said the video-conferencing equipment also can be used so that parole violation  witnesses can testify without driving to the courtroom. “This is very helpful for victims of domestic violence and rape so they have a little comfort in that distance from their attacker,” she said.

Expanding the System

About two years ago, the Michigan court system also got involved in the video-conferencing project to eliminate traveling for inmates to courthouses for arraignments. “The economy here has not been great, and both state and local budgets are really crunched,” said Marcia McBrien, a public information officer with the Michigan Supreme Court. “That was part of the impetus for looking at this project: Was there a way we could save the time and expense involved in transporting prisoners or people in jail to a hearing?”

Twenty courts currently use the technology, and in 2011, another 20 will be connected. The plan is to add 20 courts each year until it’s a statewide system, which Holloway said will take about four years. A Polycom Video Border Proxy, which allows the video data to securely cross the state’s firewall, is installed in the courtrooms along with recording equipment and cameras for the judge, prosecutor table, defense table and sometimes one for the witness stand. McBrien said the average cost to install the technology in a courtroom is $22,800, but that it will pay for itself in about a year if it’s used a few times per month.

Once the installation is complete, the court’s IT person contacts Holloway with the IP address that will be attempting to access the state firewall, and then Holloway submits paperwork to allow the IP address through. As part of certification process, Holloway instructs the court on how to dial in to MDOC’s system.

The project is a collaboration between MDOC and the State Court Administrative Office, and began with a three-county pilot. “Our goal is to eliminate a lot of the runs to and from court,” Holloway said. “And of course the public safety issue is always paramount to everything we do.”

The State Police also joined the project by developing a mechanism that let courts dial in to its offices, allowing police officers to remotely participate in arraignments, pretrial conferences and other hearings. In 2009, the project was expanded by the court office’s IT department to include the State Police Forensic Science Division and state mental health facilities.

“I know that video arraignments have been going on between courts and jails for a long time,” Holloway said. “The problem is that a lot of those connections were coaxial or hardwired and not IP, public-based. As the courts are upgrading their networks, it makes it possible for them to talk with outside agencies.”

Although Judge Michelle Rick hasn’t used the system yet, she’s excited for it to be installed in her courtroom, which is in the 29th Circuit Court that comprises Gratiot and Clinton counties. Rick said the area is home to three correctional facilities, so both the district and circuit courts regularly hear cases involving prisoners. “In the summer [of 2010] at one time I had seven or eight prisoners who each had to be transported from the prison to my courtroom — and each of them require two prison guards,” she said.

In this regard, video-conferencing technology is cost-effective in avoiding transportation costs and manpower, as well as a low public safety risk. Each time prisoners are transported outside a correctional facility’s grounds, there’s a security risk.

Real-World Benefits

The video network has garnered other real-world benefits, like aiding the MDOC’s Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, which seeks to increase the success rates of inmates as they return to society. The initiative connects soon-to-be released prisoners with an “in-reach team” of counselors who help them to successfully deal with the release. According to an MDOC report, 90 percent of these meetings take place over video conferencing because it allows the inmate and counselor to establish a face-to-face relationship before they meet in person. As of September 2009, MDOC credits the re-entry initiative with a 30 percent reduction in the number of inmates who are reincarcerated.

The telemedicine program has continued producing positive outcomes, and psychiatric evaluations now can be conducted via video conferencing. The MDOC report stated that in 2009, the 1,800 telemedicine visits over the video network saved $325,000 in transportation costs.

The video-conferencing project  also has replaced other administrative functions that required in-person visits, including prisoner misconduct hearings, immigration hearings, termination of parental rights hearings, and addresses to employees.

As Michigan continues deploying video-conferencing technology to courts statewide — and MDOC sees the savings multiply — other states would be wise to watch and learn.


Elaine Pittman is the former managing editor of Emergency Management magazine.