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May 13, 2009

Should we embrace or fear videoconferencing in corrections?

This fascintating article at Stateline.org, which is headlined "States expand videoconferencing in prisons," prompts the question in the title of this post.  Here are snippets from the article:

Faced with the high costs of transporting and escorting sick inmates to the doctor, states are expanding their use of videoconferencing to provide health consultations to prisoners without resorting to costly — and sometimes dangerous — off-site trips....  Elsewhere, videoconferencing in prisons and jails is replacing inmates’ in-person trips to the courtroom or parole board, and even the way family members visit.

Supporters say the technology saves money when few states have funds to spare; Arizona, for instance, saved $237,000 in 2008 by using telemedicine at nine correctional facilities, according to the state Department of Corrections.

But some have criticized the expansion of videoconferencing.  Relying on technology to keep inmates behind bars makes them “disappear more and more from the public consciousness, and I think there’s a (negative) long-term consequence of that,” said Nancy Stoller, a professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz and the coordinator of a jail and prison task force at the American Public Health Association....

Telemedicine and telepsychiatry work by letting inmates and doctors communicate with each other using interactive, real-time audio and video links. The practice — which has been praised by the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care — is most often used for consultation, not treatment....

Many states also are using videoconferencing to avoid transporting prisoners to court for arraignments and other initial appearances, according to Greg Hurley, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts, which researches court trends across the nation. Parole hearings also can be conducted by videoconference.

Connecticut last year finished installing videoconferencing equipment at all 18 of its state correctional facilities and the state’s court system is studying ways to expand the practice. The state’s corrections commissioner, Theresa Lantz, noted that videoconferencing saves the state money it would otherwise have to spend on vehicles, gasoline, correctional officers and overtime.

Illinois and other states also are looking at videoconferencing to let prisoners talk with family members who might not be able to make the trip to visit them in person....  The Pennsylvania Prison Society, a nonprofit advocacy group, has partnered with the state Department of Corrections since 2001 to allow inmates’ families to come to the organization’s offices and speak on a video link with their loved ones serving time.  A 55-minute session costs the family $20, according to the group’s Web site.

On these kinds of issues, I am always inclinded to embrace technology and innovation unless and until a strong argument can be made to preserve the status quo.  Among other benefits, as this Stateline article hints, new technologies and innovation tends (at least initially) to avoid the usual (and usually destructive) left/right rhetorical divides that often can thwart useful reforms.

May 13, 2009 at 06:08 PM | Permalink


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I have significant problems with such equipment for any court related activity. Video does not provide the full range of interaction that in person appearance does.

As for parole hearings, for those federal prisoners still eligible for parole a recent case indicates that video conferencing is not a legal substitute. The case is Terrell v. United States. CA6.

I do think video conferencing is an excellent idea for keeping families in touch that would not otherwise make the trip to the physical plant. As for medical care I see both pros and cons and would need to think much more on it.

I will note that Texas seems to be having problems recovering from having their telemedicine center destroyed however.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 13, 2009 9:34:30 PM

Skype.com is for free. You can have a netbook for $300 new, and get on it with any internet connection.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 13, 2009 10:19:33 PM

I am opposed to television hearings for any court related endeavor involving defendant (or inmate) and a decision maker. I have been in courtrooms on the judge end of the "proceeding" and observed the judge and staff smirk and ridicule the defendant when the poor schmuck is off the screen on the other end. Justice is seldom served when some government agency invents a new "tool" in the war on crime.

Posted by: mpb | May 14, 2009 9:00:49 AM

I don't think that videoconferencing is right when it comes to parole. The people making a decision about someone's freedom ought to face that person.

Posted by: federalist | May 14, 2009 10:42:15 AM

Moving a prisoner to and from a hospital or courtroom can be expensive and there is a significant risk of escape. Wardens and sheriffs usually like telemedicine and tele-court but most other people involved do not. Some people think the use of teleconferencing is a good way to increase the number of family contacts for a prisoners. Maybe it is but I would wait a year or two and ask then how well it really works.

Posted by: John Neff | May 14, 2009 11:53:41 AM

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