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Webcams Slash Prison Costs in New York

The Westchester County Department of Correction has turned to video conferencing to save staff time and cut costs, and the technology may change the way new prison facilities are constructed.

In an effort to cut costs and save taxpayer dollars, the Westchester County Department of Correction (WCDOC) in New York has turned to video conferencing.

In a Cisco video conference used to promote its video services, WCDOC Operations Capt. Mark Reimer said the department introduced secure video feeds to shave hours off of many of its supervisory and transportation duties.

“It saves us from transporting from within the jail, and it saves us from having to process everybody who comes to the jail,” Reimer said.

He explained that the program functions by using encrypted video-conferencing units that essentially provide inmates a secure webcam and microphone to interact with the outside world. Video conferencing can now be done with family members, attorneys, mental health professionals and medical staff, as well as to allow participation in ancillary court proceedings that don’t require the inmate to be presented before a jury.

Since the video initiative began in 2005, the WCDOC has gradually increased its video visitation units to 80. Officials plan to install additional units for the department’s inmates — a fluctuating population that averages around 1,300 but can go as high as 1,800. While the service is not new, its growth in Westchester County is evidence of its increasing use in prisons as a means of reducing costs. The state of Michigan began video conferencing in 1996 across 34 correctional facilities.

As was the case in Michigan, Reimer said probation officers stand to benefit most from video conferencing. On average, probation officers have to commute 26 miles roundtrip to correctional facilities, on top of going through the time-consuming processing procedures required to enter the prisons and speak with inmates.

Reimer said a single probation officer may have to make multiple visits per week, but with video conferencing, this has been greatly reduced.
Another success of the program, Reimer explained, was in the case of medical quarantines. In one recent case, 170 inmates had to be quarantined due to an outbreak of chickenpox. During the eight-day incident, inmates were confined to their quarters, a situation that can ignite frustration and confrontations.

Allowing the inmates to communicate with family using the technology helped alleviate the added stress brought on by the quarantine.

“Through video, we were able to keep tensions down while still keeping them in quarantine,” he said.

However he noted that not all public employees were supportive of the move to video conferencing. Specifically, Reimer said, publicly paid defense attorneys balked at the move when they discovered their hourly earnings would drop.

“We found a little resistance with [the attorneys] because they’d rather wait in the jail and read the newspaper because they’re being paid for it,” Reimer said. “We had to talk with the administration to say ‘Hey, you’re using taxpayer money to have your guys sit here and read the newspaper.’”

Reimer estimated that attorneys would normally wait about an hour and a half before speaking to their clients.

The only other potential challenge in using video conferencing, Reimer said, is with proceedings where inmates are required to decide whether or not travel is needed. He said some prefer the momentary exit from the prison walls.

Exact numbers on total savings from the video initiative were not available, but Reimer said employee hours had been reduced dramatically in some cases.

In a final note, Reimer said he thought the video technology would be a breakthrough and was working to get approval for additional court proceedings to be done via video conference. He added that the new service would not only lower costs in the short term but also contribute to the push for construction of IT-friendly detention facilities.

“Old jails don’t have any room for electrical equipment and new jails will have it integrated in many aspects of the jail,” he said.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.